I recently returned from a two-week research trip to Britain for my latest Davies & West Mystery. I like to think of it, however, as a driving holiday. Not a holiday from driving, mind you, but a holiday of driving. Very fast.
If you happen to live on my island in Washington State’s Puget Sound, “fast” is anything over 25 mph. You could die of old age just trying to get from one end of the island to the other. Not so on that other island, England. Not at all. You can drive from London in the east all the way to Bath in the west in just over an hour. This is because England, while a nation, is quite small. It is also because the English drive like maniacs—but very disciplined maniacs, I must admit (unlike, say, the Italians). The posted speed for motorways (“interstates”) in the UK is 70 mph. This appears to be only a suggestion, one about which the police (“Bobbies”) in their squad (“Panda”) cars are most casual.
These motorways have three lanes in each direction and, of course, you drive on the left. I have never had any trouble driving on the left. Perhaps my brain was installed backwards. That would explain other things as well…
Anyway, the far left, or “Loser Lane,” is populated by people driving between 70 and 80 mph. This includes trucks (“lorries”) and people who should not be permitted to drive at all. The middle, or “Loafer Lane,” includes cars traveling at between 80 and 90 mph. They would normally be in the “Loser Lane,” but in order to pass (“overtake”) the Losers, they must swing out into the middle. But everyone knows the rules and once you have overtaken you must pull back into the “Loser Lane,” unless of course there are even slower losers there already, in which you can stay in the middle lane, loafing along at 90.
The far right “Lunatic Lane” is for cars traveling at anywhere between 90 and 120 mph. There is a special etiquette here. If someone is loafing along in the “Lunatic Lane,” the oncoming lunatic flashes his or her headlights (“headlamps”) and the loafer immediately returns to the middle lane. The driver knows this is where he rightfully belongs and that he has committed a vehicular faux pas (though the British hate using French terms). As the lunatic overtakes him, the loafer will lower his eyes and tug at his forelock in the universal British gesture of obsequiousness. It’s a class thing.
In fact, however, the “Lunatic Lane” could just as easily be called the “Actung! Lane,” as all of the cars (“motors”) there are Teutonic: Mercedes Benzes, BMWs, Audis, and hopped-up Volkswagens like the one I drive. Though I was a visitor driving only a rented (“hired”) two-door Peugeot turbo-diesel, I screamed along in the right lane like the other lunatics. My heritage is largely Teutonic. It’s genetic.
Once exiting the motorway, however, you are immediately plunked down into the horse and buggy era. The English countryside is laced with single lane roads bounded by high hedgerows. This just adds to the sport. These roads, if we can grace them with that term, are punctuated every hundred yards or so with widened passing places (“lay-bys”). From the air, your average country lane in England looks like a python that’s hit the jackpot, swollen along its length here and there by a few swallowed hedgehogs.
The English treat driving these narrow lanes as if they were a government-sanctioned game of chicken. They tear along them at breakneck speed, the bordering hedgerows a blur, and play the game: “Who’s gonna pull into a layby first?” Unless you want to be a chump (“a wet”) you rocket along, peering through the windshield (“windscreen”), ready to stomp on the brakes at any given heart-stopping moment. This, I am convinced, is why disc brakes were invented in England long ago by a chap called Fred Lanchester who, no doubt, had way too many head-ons with farm tractors.
It used to be even more fun. Back in the 60s when I lived there, England’s main arteries (“A-roads”) had three lanes: two in each direction and a middle one for passing in either direction. Essentially, if you wanted to pass you’d pull into that middle lane, speed up, and wait for the car hurtling toward you in that same middle lane to flinch and pull over. Great sport!
I should like to propose this same solution for the occasional backups (“tailbacks”) on my island caused by rubbernecking tourists, buses (“charabanks”), ferry traffic, and truck (“lorry”) drivers who apparently are being paid by the hour. A center, two-way passing lane is an efficient and sporty way of moving traffic along smartly.
I can’t imagine why, sometime in the last forty years, Britain abandoned this system…