Editor's note: Jim Sack is a Fort Wayne resident who will share his experiences periodically while traveling abroad.
I remember as a kid my aunt saying people from Ohio were bad drivers. “Who knows what they are going to do!” she would snort with Hoosierly indignation.
By comparison, she would be frustrated by traffic “norms” in Montevideo, Uruguay; she would dive for cover in Moscow; she would have turned white in Germany; and, finally, her heart would have given out in Poland. Driving is just one of the many amusements around the world that await the curious traveler.
If a road here in Montevideo is painted for two lanes, you can count on three drivers or more to move abreast. If there is a broad intersection, you can expect a dozen drivers to jockey with one another for first chance to dash across. There are few yield signs and still fewer stop signs, so each intersection offers the opportunity to play the odds.
While conventions exist, such as yielding to the right, these seem more to be helpful hints rather than rules of the road. If you are in a straight line of cars waiting on a stoplight, expect newcomers to nose right in front of you.
You are less in a line than a conglomeration. People here routinely drive straddling lane stripes. Traffic jockeys for position like a race and interestingly, no one seems to care or express the first hint of road rage. They just sort it out.
Germany, on the other hand, is the model of discipline. Markings and signs are scrupulously observed. On the Autobahn, at 110 mph, lane discipline is an absolute must, a life or death imperative.
All cars travel in the right lane until they prepare to pass, turn signals come on and drivers move past quickly and return to the slow lane just as quickly lest a Porsche scream right up his exhaust, through the console and out the grille at 150 mph. Discipline saves lives and is demanded by fellow drivers. Step out of line and you will hear about it.
Parking in German cities is tidy and uniform. In Rome, drivers claim any small space to park. Everywhere in Europe, freelance parking chokes cities. In London, though, they have famously taxed cars entering the city, so great is the congestion. It is not unlike paying $50 to park overnight in Chicago.
In Poland, Russia, Uruguay and Romania, to name a few, passing on a steep winding hill, or over a double yellow line are as common as the air. Frequently in Romania, you might find two cars coming at you head on, even on narrow two-lane roads.
The convention is for you to move over a bit, perhaps one wheel on the shoulder, regardless of whether it is “your” lane or not. Why not? What's the alternative?
In the Czech countryside, small, sporty, tightly geared cars zip along, passing and dodging along winding roads like they are on the Nürburgring. Downshift, accelerate, pass, dart back into your lane, brake, bend around a sharp curve, shift again, accelerate and shift up with speed.
Pedestrians beware. It is the truly courteous driver, or the one who grew up with Gram in England, who yields to pedestrians. Dart at your own peril.
In Istanbul, you quickly learn to find small gaps in traffic, scurry to an island, look for another small gap and run. Umbrellas are handy in Rome employed as a sword against the onslaught of Alpha Romeos.
Remember, once “safely” on the sidewalk, to keep an eye both directions for scooters and impatient Italians who have brought their unique sense of the normal with them.
Crashes can be cataclysmic. Often on the Autobahn, you will pass the burned out hulk of a Punto or a Skoda left to die by a Mercedes. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the number of highway deaths in West Germany skyrocketed as two-stroke East German Trabis (Trabants )and underpowered (Czech) Tatras failed to comprehend the speed of western cars. Panzers vs. perambulators. Smoking remains reminded history buffs of the road to Stalingrad.
In the Americas, traffic lights cycle the same from Tierra del Fuego to Yellow Knife, for the most part ... . Some local systems deviate, but usually it is green, amber, red. In Europe the cycle adds a second amber warning, this one akin to “gentlemen, start your engines.” Once used to the fuller sequence, it seems an improvement over our Hoosier system.
Use your “indicators” was what the Englishman yelled from his rolled down window at 85 mph on the M-1. I had just failed to signal my intention to change lanes (too busy praying). He shouted, but with English politeness. “I say, might you be so kind as to employ your indicators in the future? Thank you.”
Germans compare favorably to the English. They use turn signals with firm intention and at the pace of a metronome. The turning signal comes on and they move … on the next beat. It is not a request, but a statement. I am moving, now! There is no hesitation, just action. On the Autobahn, there should be no false steps, no failures in communication.
Oh, and signage. In many cities, so many private business signs clutter a pole that is it hard to find directions.
In Argentina, maps are scarce and street signs almost non-existent. Finding your way depends upon asking the closest gaucho. But instead of pointing the way, the local will wave vaguely in the air with a limp wrist, splayed fingers and a vague gesture. It looks like a confused, fluttering bird. “Para alla, para alla!” Huh? Pointing, as in Fort Wayne, seems impolite.
Traffic police are very interesting. In Romania, we were once stopped by an officer who emerged from the bushes. He held up a red disc on a short stick and gestured to the berm. It was an official stick up. He was supplementing his meager pay with an old fashioned shake down.
Our driver sprang out of the car with his papers and spread them on the hood for examination. A minute later the driver, crestfallen, returned to the car, resumed his seat and lamented his papers were not in order.
A $20 bill was inserted between a couple pages in his documents, he returned to the front of the car, more haggling ensued, and then he returned with a wan smile. “My papers are now in order.” It was an official corruption that was endured by the people of East Europe before and after the Fall of the Wall.
In Argentina, miles into the broad pampas, we endured a not unexpected encounter with a police roadblock. Ten officers in well tailored uniforms inspected everyones documents searching for false papers, lapsed insurance or whatever. It is straight out of a tense Cold War movie.
Trunks were opened, the inside of the engine compartment was inspected. Drugs? “Please step out,” was gestured in unspoken Spanish. Ten minutes of nervous anticipation. Then the Indiana drivers license was returned with a restrained smile. “Hab eh goooood day.” Gracias.
Long examinations were once the norm at all European borders. It took fifteen, twenty minutes or more to cross. I remember seeing a line of idling freight trucks miles and miles long at the Czechoslovakian border in 1991 waiting to get those pesky papers in order. Then, only a few trucks could cross each day. Now, they whisk across, and the time savings there alone are greater than the GDP of Greece.
Driving is an experience. It is hard to tell where in the world the best drivers are found. Perhaps in Transylvania where they can make three lanes out of two, or in Montevideo, where the road warriors have created their own rules to navigate ill-designed intersections. In comparison, I find drivers in Ohio aren't that bad. Really. Just a bit unpredictable.