Monday, September 19, 2011

Driving In Oz

We spend a large portion of our short time on this blue rock behind the wheel of a vehicle.  The experience of living in a foreign country is therefore defined in large measure by the experience of driving in a foreign country.  I was thinking about this while driving up to Bindoon to spend a few days decompressing and composing myself at the Shed.  I was going to say "decomposing myself," but realized that isn't quite the right word.  The difficulty is that in order to reach solitude and peace, I am forced to endure the least relaxing thing in the known universe:  Traffic.

As much as I complain about Perth traffic, I am told that Sydney is far, far worse.  No planning whatsoever went in to most pre-Federation Australian cities.  Roads are scattered higglety-pigglety every which way, and woefully under-built for the number of cars attempting to use them.  You can never go in a straight path from one place to another, but are forced to zig-zag, double back, and negotiate multiple turns, merges, and oddly-shaped intersections.

Things don't improve when you get out of town.  The narrow, meandering two-lane country road that takes me up to Bindoon is called The Great Northern Highway (for some reason) and is the main artery connecting Perth to the entire north of the state of Western Australia, a state which comprises nearly 2% of the Earth's land surface!  TWO PERCENT!

Police propaganda claims that speed is the enemy.  I completely disagree.  I speed multiple times every day and I am clearly not dead, much less dead 10,000 times over.  All the multi-car accidents I ever had (3) were at speeds of 10 mph or less.  Speed doesn't cause accidents, but it definitely makes them worse.  The true cause of accidents is driver inattention and improperly designed and built roads. Even vehicle failure at high speeds (wheel falls off, etc) need not be fatal if a) the driver is paying attention and knows what to do, and b) the road has been built correctly.

Traffic engineers everywhere except Australia understand that a road is safe when it is Straight, Wide and Flat.  The Great Northern Highway is none of these.  What's more, it carries a large amount of the most incompatible traffic imaginable:  people like me with places to go and things to do, and those with nowhere to go and all day to get there.

That's right.  Old people towing caravans.

("Caravan" is the Australian word for "travel trailer.")

They trundle along at 45 mph (80 kph) in a 70 mph (110 kph) zone.  The driver always wears a hat.  The passenger is a shriveled old woman who can't see over the dashboard, though at least, thank goodness, she is not driving.  And there won't be any place to pass them for miles and miles.

Unless, that is, you know this road like the back of your hand and are occasionally very lucky.  This last trip I was exceptionally lucky.  I passed two "road trains" (semi trucks with multiple trailers) and two caravans in my battered Toyota truck.  Because it has 445,000 kms (276,000 miles) and no discernible acceleration, you have to get a running start to have a hope of passing anything.  And you have to know when to begin, based on where the rare straight stretches of road are found.

About a mile before I knew a chance was coming, I fell back a hundred yards or so behind a car towing a caravan.  Then I dropped down into third and floored it.  About a minute and a half later, I came up on the caravan's rear bumper just as a long straight stretch of the highway became visible, and as luck would have it, there was no oncoming traffic.  Without losing any momentum I popped out into the oncoming lane going about 50 mph with the 1.8 liter engine screaming and the truck rattling and straining.  The truck edged ever so slowly past the caravan.  I looked over at the driver and noticed he was wearing a hat.  I could not see the passenger, possibly because she was too shriveled and buried under a folding paper map which I could tell was being less helpful than they imagined.

Looking forward, I noticed a car had come into view heading towards me at a combined speed of 130 mph.  Roads that are not straight and flat can easily hide cars until they are right on top of you.  That's what makes them dangerous.  And being narrow, there is no escape.  Trees have been allowed to grow perilously close to the road.  But by then I had found 4th gear and was edging past the caravan at 60 mph, almost able to visualize finally reaching the posted limit of 110 kph or 68.3 mph.  I swung back into the left lane well before the oncoming car flashed past.  The man in the hat made an angry, hand-waving gesture at me.  What a knob.

Of course if instead of the truck I take my ageing BMW with its 2.5 liter race-bred straight 6 engine and 5-speed automatic, passing isn't a problem.    I just put my right foot down, and caravans and all other nuisances  disappear behind me.

My first three months in Australia learning to drive on the left side of the road were very exciting, both for me and for the other drivers.  (Exiting parking lots or "kah pahks" for some reason presented the most difficulty.)  So I have a certain amount of patience with other drivers as long as they are at least making an effort to get out of people's way.

One thing that most Australian drivers understand which leaves American drivers utterly confused is the Roundabout.  An alternative to the ridiculous and dangerous 4-way stop intersection, a roundabout is a one-way circle at which you only have to look and yield to one direction while everyone else yields to you.  When used properly, no one ever has to stop.  If there's a car already in the roundabout and likely to cross in front of you, you just slow down a little so that you swing in right behind that car.  But it means you have to pay attention, look ahead, and plan ahead.  Admittedly that's asking far too much of some drivers.

Typical Roundabout
I've seen a few of these useful innovations appearing in the United States on recent visits home, and they are evidently too much for American drivers to cope with.  They approach, stop, look all directions, and then proceed down the wrong way entirely. But in Australia as in other parts of the world that have used roundabouts for decades, they work very well because people grew up knowing how they work.  Roundabouts save time, reduce congestion, are safer than intersections, and cost far less to install and maintain than traffic lights.

I always drive anywhere I go as though my hair was on fire.  This minimizes the amount of time spent on dangerous roads, and is therefore statistically the safest thing to do.  While I realize certain members of the geriatric public will find that terrifying and rude, they really have nothing to fear.  I am totally focused on the road and on other cars.  I don't blabber mindlessly on a cell phone or allow my mind to wander aimlessly while holding peoples' lives in my hand, and I look as far ahead as possible.  I get out of people's way promptly and efficiently without causing unnecessary delays, even if that means occasionally going around a corner on two wheels. To my way of thinking, driving unnecessary slow with a tail of cars behind you is the most inconsiderate, rude, and thoughtless thing a person can be guilty of.  Why do elderly people drive so slow?  It doesn't make any sense, when you think about it.

When you don't have that much time left, you shouldn't waste a moment of it!  Get where you're going as fast as possible.  And if you get a few points on your license, so what?  You don't need a drivers' license to get into heaven.  St. Peter isn't going to call up your driving record on his computer terminal.  Besides, if you make it all the way to retirement and STILL either don't know how to drive, don't own a really fast car, or don't have your own uniformed chauffeur, you just haven't been paying attention.

If you believe, as I do, that life on this planet is precious and short, then why not also drive that way: with your fullest attention on what you're doing and your right foot pressed down hard.

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