Our tiny Fiat
The experiences I recounted in last week’s post about driving in Brazil were hardly the only adventures I’ve had behind the wheel. My first encounter with “crazy foreign drivers” took place in Europe in 1965, on the same trip when my friend Arlee and I drove our car — a Fiat so tiny it made VW bugs look like whales — into a roadside ditch in Italy and we had to be rescued by a pair of burly truck drivers.
The encounter I’m about to describe took place later on the same day we’d been in the ditch. As evening approached, we found ourselves heading into the congested streets of Rome at the height of rush hour. All I remember, aside from a general sense of bedlam, is the moment we drove into a traffic circle (roundabout), a micro-environment that might well be compared to a swarm of bees at the entrance to a hive. As if that were not enough to make my blood pressure soar, I remember being uncertain as to which turn out of the traffic circle I’d need to take to head for the youth hostel where we planned to spend the night. For a few nerve-jangling moments, I was seized with the desire to just get out of the car and walk.
Somehow, I remained glued to the wheel and drove on, shaken, to our destination.
What’s especially interesting to me today, 54 years later, is what I learned when doing research for last week’s post — namely that the world’s safest place to drive is Western Europe. Actually, Italy is not Europe’s safest driving environment, but with just 6.1 fatalities per year per 100,000 inhabitants and 7.3 annual fatalities per 100,000 vehicles, it is considerably less hazardous than the U.S., whose comparable statistics are 10.9 annual traffic fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants and 12.9 fatalities per 100,000 vehicles a year.
In England, Everything Is on the “Wrong Side”
I had another type of driving adventure in England. For a reason I no longer recall, I decided the best way to get from London to a destination I’ve long since forgotten would be to rent a car and drive. I suspect I was motivated as much by the desire to try my hand at driving on the “wrong” side of the road as by any considerations of convenience, expense or timing.
In any case, I found a garage in central London where I could rent a car. Having completed the paperwork, I got behind the wheel and promptly found myself in heavy urban traffic — which is where I not only had to quickly orient myself to driving in the left lanes from the right-hand seat, but also to learn the pattern of the stick shift, which was also “wrong,” i.e., not the pattern I was accustomed to. Instead of finding first gear at the upper left of the H, I discovered that in British cars with “four-on-the-floor” manual transmission, first gear is at the upper right of the H, i.e., closest to the driver, the mirror-image of the stick shift pattern in the U.S.
Fortunately, while undergoing a “crash” course in driving on the wrong side of the road, from the wrong seat, with the stick shift on the wrong side of my body and the gear-shift pattern oriented the wrong way … it took me only a mile or two in traffic to start growing accustomed to this novel way of driving. My crash course did not, thank heavens, result in a crash.
I believe that what I gained from all these adventures proved helpful on the most recent occasion when I confronted a driving novelty. This was in Japan, where I lived and worked for about eight months when I was on the staff of the U.S. Pavilion at Tsukuba Expo ’85, 35 miles northeast of Tokyo. Like the British, the Japanese also drive on the left side of the road. But the official U.S. Pavilion car I was driving was a big, U.S.-built Buick — a wide whale of a car on Japan’s many narrow streets — with the steering wheel in the usual place. So I wound up driving in the left lanes, sitting on the left-hand side of an enormous car while oncoming vehicles were passing sometimes perilously close to the right-hand side of the battleship I was gingerly steering through traffic — a challenge for which the American brain is not well wired.
Fortunately, I got the hang of it fairly quickly … and a good thing it was that I did, because a great many of Japan’s roads are not just narrow, but also bounded by a deep drainage ditch with vertical concrete or stone-lined walls that would prove far less forgiving to a vehicle whose wheels slipped over the edge than the gently sloped, grass-lined ditch I’d encountered years earlier in Italy.
Roadside drainage ditch in Japan