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Britain’s Prince William drives his wife, Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, in London in his father Prince Charles’ Aston Martin Volante sports car covered after their wedding in 2011. (Jonathan Short/AP)
Britain’s Prince William drives his wife, Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, in London in his father Prince Charles’ Aston Martin Volante sports car covered after their wedding in 2011. (Jonathan Short/AP)

Road Sage

In Britain, car appreciation is ingrained in their culture Add to ...

When you bring up the subject of culture and cars, you enter contentious territory. Any assertion that one culture’s drivers are superior to that of another is bound to be controversial. Racial stereotypes about driving abound. Perhaps the only thing you can say without raising hackles is that most countries and ethnicities have a clear idea of how to categorize.

This attitude can be summed up simply: “We (insert name of nationality here) are good drivers. Everyone else isn’t.”

The reality is that it is impossible to quantify driving skill by culture. There are good and bad drivers from every country. A distracted driver in Canada is no different from a distracted driver in Detroit or Delhi. They all have their eyes on their smartphones instead of the road.

It is possible, however, to observe differences in the ways different nationalities think and feel about driving, and what place cars and car culture hold in their collective consciousness.

I was struck by this fact on a recent visit to England. It’s fair to say the British like their cars. They take them seriously and have for quite a while. For instance, when I lived in London in the 1990s, it was clear the dream of car ownership, for many, had replaced home ownership. Owning a house in London, even back then, was impossible for many, so the pride of ownership was transferred to their automobiles.

Statistically, Brits make good drivers. In 2015, for instance, 30,000 Americans (population: 320 million) were killed in driving accidents compared with only 2,000 in Britain (population: 64.7 million). Last year, Enterprise Rent-A-Car conducted its annual driving survey and asked British motorists who the best drivers in Europe were. The British voted themselves, which sounds predictable, except that they normally pick the Germans.

Car appreciation cuts across class. Take the Land Rover – there’s a vehicle that is admired by everyone from working-class Brits to the Queen. It’s no accident many of the world’s most popular car television shows, such as Top Gear, had their genesis in Britain. Where else but Britain could a series such as For the Love of the Car, on which vintage cars (a rundown Fiat or a beat-up Beetle) are restored and then auctioned off, become a hit?

There are certain differences between the Canadian and British motorist. Aside from the most obvious, such as driving on the left (which has its origins in the need for horseback riders to have their right hands free to brandish their swords), there are more nuanced distinctions.

“You don’t see much rudeness and road rage,” my friend Micah told me while we navigated London’s city centre. Although raised in Ottawa, Micah has spent most of his working life abroad, living and driving in countries that include Germany, Turkey and England. “In Canada, it’s jarring; people are yelling and flipping each other off. In the U.K., if you give another driver the finger that means, ‘Let’s pull over and fight.’ And you better be prepared to do it.”

Manual transmissions are much more common. In England, if a car-nut finds out that you drive an automatic, he’s likely to think there’s something wrong with your character. In London, the concept of “free parking” disappeared with the horse and carriage. Drive-throughs are uncommon. British drivers are better at navigating narrow streets. In Canada, we’re used to cities with wide roads that were built on the grid system. In Britain, some of the streets in the city centres date back to the Middle Ages.

Over all, I sensed more pride and patience. Then again, I was just back for a week. When I lived in London, I never drove. It was the Underground and the train all the way. Black cabs were reserved for late-night trips, after too many pints. That’s another difference. Maybe Londoners see cars as recreation. Public transit is, by far, the fastest way to travel.

Of course, these are surface observations and the other lane is always greener, so to speak. Still, next time I find myself stuck at a light surrounded by North American motorists, I may just close my eyes and think of England.

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