Honking hooters and goofy airbags

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

After driving in more than a dozen countries around the world, I'm longing for the not-too distant future when cars that drive themselves will be a reality.

Here's why: people in Durban do not know how to use four-way stop streets; and people in Johannesburg do not know how to use traffic circles.

Global standards are a useful thing. Imagine if the airline industry were not able to agree basic rules about where to fly, when to fly, how to land, which way each aircraft should bank if they find themselves approaching each other head on.

Road rules on the other hand are chaotic. Which side of the road one drives on is largely determined by whom one was colonised by. Most of Africa drives on the same side of the road as us because we were looted and pillaged by the British. A notable exception is Nigeria which switched to the other side two decades ago, putatively in deference to its Francophone neighbours.

In China, the mainland drives on the right and Hong Kong drives on the left.

The real-life implications of differing standards of traffic ordinances only sunk in the first time I tried crossing the street in the US of A. This was in the little town of Granville, Ohio, where I damn near wiped myself out by looking the wrong way as I stepped into the road. It was a quick lesson. And in the years after, I found many more...

The English, for example, are normally quite civilised in their driving habits and actually obey pedestrian crossings. (Perhaps the fact that their public transportation system is reasonably good has something to do with it?) More importantly, they actually understand how to use traffic circles.

Traffic circles, used properly, are among the more sensible ways of controlling traffic flow (along with visible policing by armed traffic officers, but let's talk about that later).

Circles allow traffic to flow smoothly without necessarily requiring a complete stop and are much more sensible than four-way stop streets. Yield to traffic that's already in the circle, otherwise keep going.

The French – presumably because the English did otherwise – changed this rule around. Yield to traffic that's entering the circle is what their traffic regulations insist upon. The result – everyone gets into the circle and no one is able to leave.

Finally, the French caught on, and have now taken to erecting yield signs at entrances to traffic circles all around the country.

(Yes, they left the law unchanged, but put up signs.)

Italians have a bad reputation as drivers, and deservedly so. (Like the old joke goes ... England: "Please do not speak to the bus driver." Germany: "It is forbidden to speak to the bus driver." Italy: "If the bus driver talks, don't respond.")

I found myself needing to get across Naples during a Friday noon traffic jam with only 10 minutes to do so. My cab driver had no hesitation in flinging our Fiat on to the railway lines and playing chicken with oncoming trams. I made my appointment in time too.

But the most infuriating thing about Italian drivers is their tendency to blast their horns the split-second the lights go green. (South African drivers displaying the Italian flag on their bumpers tend to do this too.) The answer, of course, is that this behaviour is genetic.

No, seriously, there's actually a logical explanation. Because of what scientists now refer to as the "All roads lead to Rome" syndrome, many Italian roads converge into large piazzas, making it impossible to place traffic lights across the road.

This means that the driver of the car in front cannot see the traffic light on his side of the road. (Yes, it's a man. Trust me on this.) The drivers behind help him along with a helpful blast of the horn and several expletives.

The French have this problem too, dating back to the times when they were conquered by the Romans, but have solved it more elegantly by placing a smaller set of traffic lights at eye level where the driver in front is able to see them change without straining her neck. (Yes, it's a woman. Trust me on this too.)

In Spain (and Italy to some extent), right of way is determined by eye-contact. The first driver to acknowledge the presence of another has to give way. This is why Spanish and Italian drivers generally wear dark glasses.

The Scandinavians, with their cradle-to-grave social security societies, take road safety extremely seriously. Some of their rules are quite sensible, such as the requirement that you have your car lights on at all times. This is simply because a dark-coloured car is difficult to see against a dark background, such as the magnificent evergreen trees that line Sweden's highways.

I have for years been driving with my lights on whenever I hit rural roads. This can be a problem because every helpful oncoming motorist insists on flashing his lights and waving his fist as he passes me. I put up with it because I'd rather he saw me than not.

But the Swedes also have a sense of humour about safety. One luxury car comes standard with seven airbags, including one for the built-in kiddie seat. The car maker has licensed Disney characters to be painted on to that airbag. So the last thing that little Olaf or Helga sees is Mickey or Goofy exploding out of the seat with a sock to the jaw.

No, I'm not sure whether Gripen fighters have something similar...