Road Rage in London: Reflections on having to give way…June 12, 2018
Let me start this post with some disclaimers. No, the road rage I am about to talk about was not my own. I have not driven a car in the now 10 weeks that Rosemary and I have been in the UK – and have had the luxury of being driven by others, using public transport (which overall, is amazingly effective), or walking (which is a wondeful way of bumping into unexpected delights, as you discover endless houses previous occupied by genuinely famous people). But today I observed road rage from the comfort of our one bedroom flat whilst marking student assignments – which sadly don’t disappear, even when, as now, I’m on sabbatical leave.
Let me give some context. Travel by road in London is more than a little tricky. Many roads are narrow while garaging for cars is almost non-existent, resulting in cars parked on both sides of roads which are already too slim, making it possible for only one line of traffic to pass down the road at any one time. This would be fine if the streets were one way – but they are not, and therefore it is very common to have two cars approaching each other from opposite directions, the only option being for one of them to find a spot into which to pull over, whilst the other drives past. I have asked many people what the appropriate etiquette for this is (how do you decide who is to pull over?), but have been given as many answers as people I have asked, and have therefore concluded that no one actually knows, or at best, that this is a grey area.
Given the vagueness of the parameters, I think it is astonishing that London traffic flows as smoothly as it does. By and large drivers are good humoured and impeccably polite. I have seen endless examples of poor driving which have met with zero response from those affected by it, and overall there is tolerance for even the most incompetent of drivers. The British truly have a stiff upper lip, and very politely refrain from informing you of your errors. It makes for very harmonious relationships, but yes – there are exceptions. Today was one.
Having rested my eyes from my marking for just a moment, I noticed two cars approaching each other down our street. There was a suitable point to pull over immediately below our window, and I watched to see who would move into it. The answer – neither. They both kept coming towards each other, not a high speed game of chicken – but a slow and steady approach accompanied by wild gestures to the other to move into the pull over spot. Gestures suddenly changed into screams, and then when the cars were about 12 inches apart (or should that be 30 cm), the one driver stopped, leapt out the car, and the shouting really started. Both left the other in absolutely no doubt that they were not liked, respected or wanted. And then the “you’re doing this because I’m a …” card was played. Trouble was, they each claimed a different status.
“You *** think you can do this because I’m a woman…” yelled the first.
“You’re a **** racist” screamed the other.
I won’t go into all the boorish language or the dodgey accusations thrown to each other, but in the end they reached an angry resolution, with the one (I won’t say who, lest you have taken sides) reversing back and then moving into the pull over spot – but pulling over so slightly that it was only just possible for the other to get by without accident. Needless to say, that slow journey past was accompanied with colourful language and a torrent of abusive comments on the ineptitude of the driver who was finding it difficult to get by.
Truth to tell, it was a really ugly interlude (and I hope I didn’t react by grading the paper I was marking, unfairly), but it did leave me thinking.
Sometimes in life someone just has to give way. You can keep esculating the insults, and the volume can get louder and louder, but unless someone moves, the deadlock continues. It says a lot about who you are when you are in a situation like that. Do you quickly give way, keen to avoid a scene, but not really standing up for your rights? Do you dig in, determined to get your way, come what may and for however long a deadlock you have to sit through? If you decide to be the one who gives way, do you do it with as poor grace as possible, allowing just enough room for the other to move on, but doing your best to hijack their effort? And how do you cope with the emotion that being in a situation like that causes? After all, I’m sure that neither of the two drivers entered our road thinking, “I’d love a screaming match today. Let’s hope there is a car coming the other way that I won’t pull over for.”
Life throws up all kinds of unexpected scenarios for us – and they often force what is bubbling away beneath the surface to erupt. Today I saw two pretty unhappy people. I have absolutely no idea what caused them to be so stressed and humourless, but there it was, written large for us all to see, an ugly screaming match. Perhaps beneath it was the script, “My life really isn’t working. Is there not another way?”