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Driving overseas unforgettable

By now, you’re comfortable driving your car and have so much experience with the local roads and the traffic flow that you could do it blindfolded. By the way, that’s likely illegal where you are.

Travel to another town and although the laws are roughly the same, you’ll need to keep your wits about you to avoid running over pedestrians while looking at every street sign to figure out where you are and, after that, just how lost you really are. Throw in a rental car you’re not used to and you’ve got plenty to keep your two arms and legs a dancin’.

For fun, let’s move the car to the other side of the road and the steering wheel to the other side of the car.

Oh, nooooooo, we’re not done yet, far from it. Just for laughs, the shifter now falls to your left hand and nearly every traffic light or stop sign is on a steep hill. No that’s not “bangers and mash” you’re smelling, it’s the clutch (but it’s close).

Feeling relaxed on your holiday yet? Welcome to England.

Honestly, in all the fuss over video games these days, it might be a good idea to make one that teaches you how to drive in London. Or one that shows the rules — yes, there are rules – while traveling on Germany’s freeway structure, known around the world as the Autobahn.

Confusing does not begin to describe the situation nor does terrifying accurately depict the feeling when you instinctively pull into traffic that’s heading right for you, blissfully unaware that just because you have a license in your homeland doesn’t automatically mean you know how to drive somewhere else, especially in a world that’s a mirror image of your own.

“How is driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road?” my father asks after dialing about 142 digits on the phone to find him.

Where do you begin the story? With the street signs that make no sense, squiggles on the road that make even less sense and the fact you have no sense of direction?

The kicker is that it’s different from one country to another over there … sometimes. So while just getting the hang of the left-hand-drive Kia press car on English roads, I switched press cars: to a right-hand-drive BMW with German plates … on English roads. Now you’re completely messed up, so much so that you really don’t pay any attention to the charming countryside at all, just the narrow roads with no shoulders and the tree branches and stone walls whizzing by the driver’s side mirror (since you’re on the left-hand side of the road with a right-hand drive car). Yes, yes, the scenery is lovely, yadda, yadda, yadda.

You’ll also discover the most interesting roadside sport: getting through the “roundabout” in the opposite direction you’re used to. Some have stoplights, some don’t, but all appear to be designed to give you a brief brush with your own mortality. What’s a roundabout? A two- or three-lane circle that acts like an intersection. Once in it, you just take the appropriate exit, usually to the next traffic circle. Ingenious to the locals, but when foreigners enter, they’re like bees in a jar: They can’t get out without breaking something.

So, this column was intended to talk about the rolling countryside, the roads and the overall enjoyable experience of driving abroad. Instead, it has turned out to be somewhat of a dire if not hyperbolic warning to anyone traveling overseas to be aware of the hazards that await them.

A helpful overview is at http://www.travelfurther.net/dictionaries/driving.htm, called “So, you want to drive in England?” I’m not really sure if the English even really want to drive in England, but this cheeky page lays out the basics, handy if you’re looking for a refresher if you’ve already been there. More basics, including an animation of how a roundabout works, are at http://england.visualenc.com/general/driving.html. Other valuable information can be found there, such as realizing that automatic-transmission vehicles are virtually nonexistent in all of the UK and Europe and that if you don’t know how to drive a stick, you can add that to your list of things to learn when you get there.

My favorite line from this site is “it’s impossible to get lost, unless you’re in a city.” That’s true in most places, but ridiculously true in many European cities as there isn’t a straight piece of road to be found, few signs marking anything you really want to know about, people who don’t necessarily speak your language and may not be all that interested in helping you out, anyway. This of course, is if you’ve made it this far in one piece.

Anyway, learn before you leave and have fun. I hear the countryside is breathtaking.

Rhonda Wheeler is a journalist with Wheelbase Media, a worldwide supplier of automotive news, features and reviews. You can email her by logging on to www.wheelbasemedia.com and clicking the contact link.

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