I knew, of course, that in the UK they drive on the “other” side of the road. But I never fully understood it until a dog driving an Aston Martin almost ran me over.
So, in the interest of Anglo-American relations and the hope for a happy outcome for every tourist, here are my personal rules for not dying. To be specific, these are some of the beginner rules for not dying while walking on London streets. I have other rules for not dying while walking in London parks, by London riverbanks, in London stores, and generally “in London.” I’ll save them for another day and just focus on the traffic for now.
1. “Look right” doesn’t mean comb your hair and wash your face. It’s written on the ground everywhere you might think of legally crossing a road. It’s there for three reasons:
(a) to give you something to read while avoiding eye contact with the reticent Brits around you;
(b) to match the “Look left” message nearby; and
(c) as a gentle suggestion that before you step off the sidewalk, you should actually look to your right for oncoming traffic. Do it.
2. Brits walk on the “pavement” and think “sidewalk” is a quaint expression from some archaic frontier town in 1888 Nebraska. Don’t be shocked when you hear them telling their children to stay on the pavement. This is not a way of killing off their young, the way we in North America occasionally send our kids to go play in traffic. No, “pavement” is supposedly a safe place for pedestrians. Walk on it, but remember, it’s really a sidewalk. The dangerous paved thing is a road. Don’t walk on that.
3. Although there is almost unanimous agreement that cars drive on the left hand side of the road, there is absolutely no such convention when it comes to walking. People walk on the left, they walk on the right, they walk in the middle. I myself have been known to do all three in the course of only a hundred yards or so. I would love to start my journey walking on the left side of the pavement and stay there until the end, but alas, too many forces conspire to make this impossible. The window shoppers are the worse, but the pavement spitters and the immobile chatterer groups are also obstacles I dislike. My strategy is to follow the person in front of me. Whether they are right or wrong (or right or left), they can go first and clear a path.
4. Not all cars drive on the left hand side all the time. It may be against the law (or maybe not), but people park wherever they can find a space. This may be on the wrong side of the road. This means that en route to the parking spot, the car will be driving on the wrong side of the road. Don’t argue, just beware that traffic will always be coming at you from all given directions, not just the one you expect. Look around.
5. London bus drivers are amazing. I ride the bus a lot. It’s a great view and also it’s a good substitute for actual aerobic exercise. Instead of raising my heart rate by running or pedalling a stationary bike, I sit up top and watch people leap into the path of the oncoming bus. It happens about once every block, unless I’m riding the Number 10 bus along Oxford Street, in which case it’s a rate of about one leap per bus length. These crazy leaping people have immense faith in the vision and reflexes of the drivers and the mechanical fitness of the buses. I don’t. My rule is: Don’t jump in front of a bus.
6. I reveal my complete inner safety nerd here. I only cross at the light and I wait for the light to turn green. This makes me a tourist attraction all by myself. I appear daily from 2 to 3 opposite Charing Cross station, should you want to catch my next performance.
7. The traffic lights don’t just go green-amber-red in London. They go green (Go), then they might flash on amber for a while (All Cars Accelerate Now), then turn red (Cars, Stop If You Think There Is A Reason To), then they might flash amber again (or maybe not, but if they do it means All Cars Accelerate Now), and then go green. The traffic signals are also hung horizontally rather than vertically. Basically, I consider myself lucky if I can find a traffic light. When I do, I loyally stand by until it turns green for me. There is a beguiling Green Man who appears for a nano-second. Prove that you got your foot off the pavement and onto the road during that instant, and the full weight of the British justice system will be behind you in the inevitable personal injury lawsuit. (After you leave hospital.)
8. There are things called zebra crossings and pelican crossings where you can cross the road. I have no idea what these are.
9. I think there are also things called safety islands but that may refer to Great Britain as a whole, or possibly just the Outer Hebrides and the Isle of Wight.
10. It’s really a lot easier to ride the bus.