International Driving Laws

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In the old Soviet Union they used to say that anything that wasn’t forbidden was compulsory. The trick was to remember which was which. In the West we’ve always congratulated ourselves on taking a slightly more relaxed, common sense view of things, and forget that common sense is often just as arbitrary. You’ve got to know the rules. Especially if you travel.

A few years ago - well, I can tell you exactly, in fact, it was early 1994 - I had a little run in with the police. I was driving along Westway into central London with my wife, who was six months pregnant, and I overtook on the inside lane. Not a piece of wild and reckless driving in the circumstances, honestly, it was just the way the traffic was flowing; but anyway I suddenly found myself being flagged down by a police car. The policemen signalled me to follow them down off the motorway and - astonishingly - to stop behind them on a bend in the slip road, where we could all get out and have a little chat about my heinous crime. I was aghast. Cars, trucks and, worst of all, white vans were careering down the slip road, none of them, I’m sure, expecting to find a couple of cars actually parked there, right on the bend. Any one of them could easily have rear-ended my car - with my pregnant wife inside. The situation was frightening and insane. I made this point to the police officer who, as is so often the case with the police, took a different view.

The officer’s point was that overtaking on an inside lane was inherently dangerous. Why? Because the law said it was. But being parked on a blind bend on a slip road was not dangerous because I was there on police instructions, which made it legal and hence (and this was the tricky bit to follow) safe.

My point was that I accepted I had (quite safely) made a manoeuvre that was illegal under the laws of England, but that our current situation, parked on a blind bend in the path of fast moving traffic was life-threatening by reason of the actual physical laws of the universe. The officer’s next point was that I wasn’t in the universe, I was in England, a point that has been made to me before. I gave up trying to win an argument and agreed to everything so that we could just get out of there.

As it happened, the reason I had rather over-casually overtaken on the inside lane was that I am very used to driving in the United States where everybody routinely exercises their constitutional right to drive in whatever damn lane they please. Under American law, overtaking on the inside lane (where traffic conditions allow) is perfectly legal, perfectly normal and, hence, perfectly safe. But I’ll tell you what isn’t.

I was once in San Francisco, and I parked in the only available space, which happened to be on the other side of the street. The law descended on me.

Was I aware of how dangerous the manoeuvre I’d just made was? I looked at the law a bit blankly. What had I done wrong?

I had, said the law, parked against the flow of traffic.

Puzzled, I looked up and down the street. What traffic, I asked? The traffic that would be there, said the law, if there was any traffic.

This was a bit metaphysical, even for me, so I explained, a bit lamely, that in England we just park wherever we can find a parking space available, and weren’t that fussy about which side of the street it was on. He looked at me aghast, as if I was lucky to have got out of a country of such wild and crazy car parkers alive, and promptly gave me a ticket. Clearly he would rather have deported me before my subversive ideas brought chaos and anarchy to streets which normally had to cope with nothing more alarming than a few simple assault rifles. Which, as we know, in the States are perfectly legal, and without which they would be overrun by herds of deer, overbearing government officers and lawless British tea importers.

My late friend Graham Chapman, an idiosyncratic driver at the best of times, used to exploit the mutual incomprehension of British and US driving habits by always carrying both British and Californian driver’s licences. Whenever he was stopped in the US he would flash his British licence, and vice versa. He would also mention that he was just on his way to the airport to leave the country, which he always found to be such welcome news that the police would breathe a sigh of relief and wave him on.

But though there are frequent misunderstandings between the Europeans and the Americans, at least we’ve had decades of shared movies and TV to help us get used to each other. Outside those bounds you can’t make any assumptions at all. In China, for instance, the poet James Fenton was once stopped for having a light on his bicycle. ‘How would it be,’ the police officer asked him severely, ‘if everybody did that?’ However, the most extreme example I’ve come across of something being absolutely forbidden in one country and normal practice in another is one I can’t quite bring myself to believe, though my cousin swears it’s true. She lived for several years in Tokyo, and tells of a court case in which a driver who was being prosecuted for driving up onto the pavement, crashing into a shop window and killing a couple of pedestrians was allowed to enter the fact that he was blind drunk at the time as a plea in mitigation.

What are the rules you need to know if you are moving from one country to another? What are the things that are compulsory in one country and forbidden in another? Common sense won’t tell you. We have to tell each other. So - please post answers here or in the forum for Driving Etiquette.

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