My way or the highway

There is a recognizably French way of parking. You kiss the car in front in a sociable manner, then kiss the car behind with slightly more élan. Then you kiss them both once more, because two kisses are de rigueur among the citizens of Gaul. Then you step into the street as if you owned it, oblivious of Gallic curses and cross over to your favourite boulangerie to grab a baguette or two. It closes in front of your nose for its two and a half hour pause midi. Bakers have to eat, you know! So you return to your vehicle as nonchalantly as possible, given the annoying circumstances, and repeat the kissing procedure once again, out of sheer politeness, before crunching your gears and lurching with your dented Peugeot back out into the heaving traffic to a chorus of squealing brakes.

Then there is the German way. You park with ostentatious care, always leaving a respectful ten centimetres between your car and the next at the apex of each manoeuvre. When leaving your vehicle, you walk around it to verify its parallel position to the curb and equidistance from its neighbours. You then take out your phone and snap both their number plates, as well as the state of all four fenders (two of yours and one each of theirs) just in case one of the other drivers should turn out to be not quite a true blue Teuton after all.

Americans do things differently. Firstly, they hang huge protective rubber mats over the fenders of their gigantic SUVs to tell the world either what lousy parkers they are or what lousy parkers they assume everyone else is. Then, after requiring upward of five frustrating minutes to cajole their power-steered, automotive humungoid into a space large enough for a small aircraft carrier, during which activity everyone else’s ingress or egress from the parking lot, street, or gas station apron is effectively blocked, they step nobly back into the general right of way to survey the result. Satisfied that they have managed to park astride the divider between two spaces, thus denying the use of the remaining space to anyone whose ride is wider than a Harley, they will then mosey off to the store to stock up on all those strange commodities that Americans mistake for food.

Meanwhile, the rear end of the giant urban cruiser (Americans ONLY park forward, it’s a patriotic thing) has been left protruding far enough into the main gangway to make it hard even for pedestrians, let alone other vehicles, to get past. This is because what they call the hood of the vehicle is so vast that no one, not even Pythagoras or Euclid using trigonometry, would want to calculate its distance from the opposing row with any exactitude. So what, might you ask, is the two-inch thick rubber mat actually for, if not for nosing up cosily to ones brothers from Detroit? Well, sure, but if you did that, then no one could benefit from the philosophical worth inherent in the embossed gold legend your mat carries: “God, Guts and Guns made America Great”.

Now, the engine in that monster would take any normally sized family car from zero to 100 kmh (0 – 60mph) in about five seconds and on up to a top speed of 200 or so. Fortunately for all of us, the sheer weight of the average SUV leaves such performance in dreamland. They are ponderous, clunky, pug-ugly and their tyres scream if they negotiate a bend at anything much more than walking speed. These US models are larger than anything sold over here in Europe. They are built on truck chassis and under-taxed accordingly as utility vehicles. This fiscal incentive is one of the only two arguments in their favour. The other, unexpectedly, is not interior size, since most of the footprint is taken up with imposing muscularity: fat fairings, big hood, broad shoulders, tractor wheels etc., but rather the hope that they will stay on the road through floods and tornados in those states where such things are common. That makes them part of a paradigm, or at least a self-fulfilling prophecy, because these days, partly because of the continued existence of these guzzling hulks, such natural phenomena are becoming more frequent.

Cars like these only make sense in the USA. The mind-numbing 55 mph (89kmh) speed limit that still blankets some states means that the feel of riding in a big-engined, lazy-revving vehicle keeps you in your personal comfort zone. What I noticed in New York State (and this may well be true of many others that have raised their limits with fatal results) is that the roads themselves are neither sufficiently well-engineered, nor surfaced, nor marked nor signposted to support higher speeds anyway. As soon as it rains or dusk draws in, you lose all sense of your position on the highway as the non-reflective markings disappear. Add to this the poor state of the tarmac, a total lack of cambering in curves, the atrociously random signposting and the lack of normal driving skills evident in the average American motorist and you begin to be grateful that no one is moving faster than you.

The proof of this particular pudding came when the Chevrolet sedan in front of my little rented Nissan burst a tyre in full rush-hour traffic on the Long Island Expressway and, instead of hitting his warning lights and moving smartly over onto the perfectly free, available and immediately accessible hard shoulder (as any European would do), he began to lose speed dramatically while staying in lane. Coming to a stop, and forcing me to do the same (the density of traffic prevented me from passing on the left), the driver swung his door wide open into the dense traffic, causing yet more chaos. He then climbed slowly out, stretched like a man getting up to fetch a beer and stood scratching his head and looking with a bovine air at his wheels.

To avoid being crushed by the Mack behemoth barrelling down behind me I steered smartly, if illegally, onto the hard shoulder, slipped by on his right and made my escape from this frightening and potentially tragic situation.  I shall never again laugh at the state-wide New York limit. It probably saved my life. Whether it saved the life of the suicidal idiot in front I shall never know. There’s not much justice in the world, so he probably lived to drive another day and will even go forth, find some equally bovine partner and multiply. There’s one born every minute, they say. So at least the future is assured.

Edwin Drood

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