Friday, November 6, 2009

Me, Myself, and I

Way back when I was learning to drive, the instructor taught “defensive driving”, which he summarized in one sentence: Assume everyone else on the road is an idiot. Driving in southern France is a constant reminder of just how important that is. Bob, my brother-in-law who lives in Montpellier, has warned us that driving is more of a free-form expression here. But it’s not until you’re behind the wheel that you really appreciate the creativity.

What makes driving such a challenge here? The most significant difference is the self-importance of the French driver, which is an extension of the French (and mostly Latin European) personality. Let me explain. When we lived in Europe before, we often went skiing. At a ski-lift in Europe, you quickly learn that if you let even a bit a space open between you and the skier in front of you, Europeans will cut in. Holding your position and getting to the front of the line requires a quiet, yet physical, aggressiveness. It’s what I call the Gordie Howe approach: keep your elbows up and stand your ground. There’s no room for typical Canadian deference. That same self-importance shows up in other aspects of daily life in Europe: in shops, the airport, and definitely on the road.

Driving in the city and driving on the highway in southern Europe are very different. In the city, the streets are much narrower, reducing the margin for error. Over time, every car collects various bumps, scrapes, and dents. Signalling for a lane change? Entirely optional. Checking if someone else is in the lane you’re moving into? That’s optional too. Speed limits? Are you serious? Police? Not on traffic patrol. (OK, that’s the same as Canada.) But the really amazing behaviour comes from the cyclists… not motorcyclists, the bicyclists. Weaving in and out of traffic, running stop signs and red-lights, no helmets. Is this some sort of suicide pact? It’s crazy chaos. And yet, with all this free-form driving, we haven’t seen a single collision! So maybe in all this chaos, can there be a pattern of behaviour that I just haven’t yet clicked into?

Leaving the city and getting onto the highways and autoroutes is a relief but it has its own customs, just the opposite to the city. And the European driver’s self-importance is still evident. Speeding? Often, they’re driving dangerously below the speed limit. Photo radar is very common on the highways, the fines are expensive, and drivers seem to distrust their speedometers. (Mind you, if you’re in a Renault Clio, driving at 130 seems like sitting inside a Cuisinart so maybe that’s why traffic is slower.)

Most autoroutes are 6-lanes across (three in each direction). The custom is that traffic always moves over into the right-lane if there’s room. So, on a 3-lane autoroute, you cannot stay in the middle lane if there’s room to move over into the right lane, even if the left lane is clear for a car to pass you. If you don’t move over, the car coming up behind you will flash its headlights (the signal to move over) rather than pass you on the left, even if the left lane is empty. The message is clear: I’m faster, this lane belongs to me, move over…NOW.

In the city, signalling to change lanes is rare. On the autoroute, if you see someone’s signal flashing, it can mean one of 3 things:
  1. I’d like to change lanes at some point but I’ll wait until there’s a gap in traffic before I change…eventually.
  2. Look out! I’m changing lanes and I’m doing it now, whether there’s another car there or not.
  3. I changed lanes a while ago and I’ve forgotten to turn the signal off. 
How do you know which is which? Well, you don’t. So put your foot to the floor and get past them! See? I’m adapting already.

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