Whenever I travel around the globe, be it for work or pleasure, one of the side benefits is studying the driving habits of the local people. From Stuttgart to Cairo to Corner Brook, drivers all around the world have varying degrees of training, ability and attitude — and it shows.
I recently visited Northern Ireland and this gave me an excellent opportunity to sample driving in both rural and urban settings, albeit from the other side of the road.
Rural roads in Northern Ireland are narrow and winding, with limited side visibility and little, if any, shoulders. The lack of shoulders and sight lines around corners are a result of hundreds of years of vegetation growth along ancient stone walls at the side of the road. Most of these roads were laid out centuries ago and farmers lined them with stones to form fences.
This may seem dangerous to North American motorists, since we are accustomed to wide open and mostly straight country highways with gravel shoulders. However, from what I observed, these less-than-ideal conditions in Northern Ireland force their drivers to be more focussed.
The efficiency of roundabouts negates the need for many stop signs. Although the traffic lights display the typical red, amber and green, the big difference is a progression from red light to a red/amber combination to warn motorists of the impending green. In Ontario, traffic engineers try to hide the timing of red-to-green transition in fear of motorists becoming over-eager for the green.
Irish motorists seemed to be more patient. The narrow roads often force at least one user to yield to the other. I never saw a dispute when two or more vehicles needed the same piece of road. In most cases, both drivers patiently stopped.
This same scenario here in North America would devolve into a game of chicken, with the driver of the larger vehicle trying to intimidate his way through.
We covered thousands of kilometres and a lot of roads in and around Belfast during our week of driving, but I saw only two drivers talking on a cellphone. Irish drivers seem to know that focusing on driving pays off in a safer drive. Becoming distracted on those winding narrow roads could produce a head-on collision in the blink of an eye.
On my return to Toronto, it took only 15 minutes to see a gabbing motorist talking and gesturing on his handheld phone. In the 50 minutes it took to drive home, I noticed about a dozen cellphone-using drivers. It saddened me to return to roads inundated with selfish, rude and poorly trained drivers.
It was also a rare sight to see an Irish driver not using the turn signal to indicate lane changes and turns. What a welcome relief.
The other noticeable difference was lane discipline. Motorists in Ireland regularly move from the passing lane back to the left lane (yes, the slow lane is the left lane in the U.K., since they drive on the left side) when they had completed their pass.
The most glaring difference I noticed on my return to Toronto was the incredible number of skid scars on our highways. The drive along the 409, 401 and 404 was crisscrossed with skid marks from numerous driving blunders. What makes this even more concerning is today’s roads would look a lot worse if it wasn’t for ABS masking what would be braking skids.
One of my many peeves about drivers here is the overwhelming tendency to tailgate. I did notice this same dangerous habit in Ireland.
Torr Road, which winds its way along the north coast of Northern Ireland, is one of those “must drive” roads auto enthusiasts dream of experiencing. This scenic road gives you access to cliffs and vistas that are spectacular. Castle ruins and quaint towns add to the enjoyment. On a clear day, you can revel in an awe-inspiring glimpse of the rugged Scottish highlands across the Irish Sea.