I firmly believe that a major benefit from traveling abroad is the new perspectives it gives on what you have at home.
My wife, Beverly, and I have just finished a week of driving on the “wrong” side of the road. We were traveling by car with friends through southern England and Wales. Staying in bed and breakfasts all the way gave us a great opportunity to interact with local people, and despite the typical on-again-off-again rain that followed us the entire time, it was a great trip.
As the journey progressed, a number of things related to my driving experience started to coalesce in my mind. The first related to driving on the “wrong,” or left-hand, side of the road.
But is it wrong? We have adopted that principle of “the right of way.” But it really only makes sense if you are driving on the left. When you come to a roundabout (and the roads in the United Kingdom seem to consist entirely of roundabouts linked by short stretches of pavement) the car in the roundabout has precedence. In the U.K. it is coming from the right. (In the U.S. it is actually coming from the left.)
Similarly, when coming to an intersection, the car crossing in front of you that you must be most concerned about is coming from your right (again in the U.S. it will be from your left). And the immediate threat to a pedestrian crossing a road in the U.K. comes from the right (In the U.S. you better look first to the left.) We seem to have adopted an old rule, without recognizing that the “left of way” makes more sense for our driving patterns (a concept that all of us Lefties would strongly endorse).
A second observation related to the way roads are “designed.” Many were in existence centuries before the car was even a notion in anyone’s mind. Property rights go back for centuries. As a result, in converting the countryside to accommodate modern vehicles, compromises were made.
I enjoy driving and looking at the surround countryside. Not so in the U.K. First, most of the lesser roads, and even many of the major connecting roads, are very narrow — in places not much wider than a single car. Meeting another car becomes an interesting exercise. Second, the roads wind and twist, requiring the drive to concentrate on the road — no time for sightseeing, particularly with 60-mile-an-hour speed limits.
And finally, most of the properties are demarcated by high hedges — making it impossible to see anything beyond. So driving on many of the roads is like hurtling down a narrow tunnel, hoping the road gets you where you want to go, and praying that any vehicles you meet will be moving at a prudent speed (far below the limit) and be met at a place where the road allows passing (or at least within a short distance where one of you can back to.
The next observation related to the shoulders. There are none. Fortunately, I never found out what one does if he has a flat tire.
Then there was the question of finding places to have lunch. Sometimes we would travel for an hour or more before we came to a town. On one Wednesday, we found a place only to learn that all the pubs are closed on that day. We were directed to another location, arriving a bit after 2 p.m., only to learn that the chefs go home at 2 p.m.
Finally, we drove on many dual-carriage-ways (divided highways with two lanes in either direction). Speed limit was typically 70 miles per hour. But often the roundabouts were less than a mile apart. You would have to have jet assist and extra sets of breaks to make that speed limit seem plausible.
In all fairness, there were a number of super-highways (the “M” roads) that approximate our interstates. But they were not built with “sightseeing in mind.” Although they lacked shoulders in many areas, they did sport occasional rest areas, with both food and lodging available.
In thinking about the experience, it is interesting to note how our road structure has been build around the automobile (and the truck) and the needs of the traveling motorist. Wide roads with shoulders are the norm. Restaurants, gas stations, motels and other tourist services abound.
But we were able to build around the technology, whereas the U.K. had to adapt a new technology to an infrastructure that had been locked in for centuries. Most of us take what we have for granted, and it is only in contrast that things start to come into perspective.
The crowning glory of our road system is the Eisenhower Interstate System. The interstate system had is origin in the Federal Highway Act of 1938. The project really got under way with the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act. It identified 41,000 miles, set standards and defined the relationships between the federal government and the states and committed the federal government to provide 90 percent of the funding.
A highway trust fund was established to fund the project. This fund received all federal gas and other motor-vehicle user taxes, with the intent to carry out construction on a “pay-as-you-go” basis.
In October 2002, the Federal Highway Administration reported that all but 5.6 miles of the system was in place — a system like no other in the world. It consists of more than 46,000 miles of highway, of which 42,800 were federally funded. Through 1991, when most of the initially authorized construction had been completed, $128.9 billion had been spent: 4.5 percent for engineering, 13.1 percent for securing rights of way, and 82.4 percent for actual construction. It was a massive undertaking that took more than half a century.
The best way to appreciate this incredible effort is to experience it. But again, unless you’ve had other experiences, the tendency is to take things for granted as you drive, mile after mile, across this great country, without a stop light or a roundabout to interrupt. After a while, on some of the longer stretches, even billboards look inviting.
The purpose of this is not to draw a comparison of which is better or worse. Each is different, and I would heartily recommend driving around the U.K., not for the driving pleasure, but for being able to interact with the people, reach places of great historical interest and beauty, and get a feel for important antecedents of what we have here.
The point is that being in other environments gives one a better perspective (and perhaps appreciation) of what we have at home. The road system in the U.S. didn’t just happen. Much of it was planned, and enormous amounts of resources and energy were spent to make it what it is.
As an important addendum, we can’t forget that substantial resources will be needed to maintain and improve what we have.
Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Arizona and Georgia. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other week, more or less. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.