Oct 172009

There are no road signs to tell you what town you are heading towards here. My husband tells me it dates from an old cold war policy designed to fool an invading force of Russians. If that’s true, hats off to the road planners. Philadelphia will be forever safe.

Parkway in the Rain, Philadelphia by SmileyReilly.

You will see signs with the number of the road you are on and a letter indicating north, south, east or west. If you drive too far along the 76 East, don’t imagine that you just need to turn round and take the 76 West. Instead follow the signs to the Schuylkill Expressway North. When the radio traffic folks report delays, they will mention roads by name, not by number. ‘Suck it up’, as they say here. There is no way to know the name of the road you’re on or where you are headed.

The good news is that you will find a lot of the driving rules are the same on both sides of the pond. Red means stop, green means go, and amber means go very fast. The gestures are very similar but just one finger is required. You may feel frustrated by delays at lights and wonder why roundabouts (or traffic circles) have never been adopted. In fact they have in a some places, but you don’t want to go there. If you saw the mayhem, you’d be happy to wait for the light. And yes, it is disturbing that the braking distance chart has been simplified here. It seems to be six inches no matter what speed you’re driving.

So try to be culturally tolerant and understand the context. Americans spend a long time in their cars, so they can’t let it prevent them from getting on with their lives. That’s why overtaking (and undertaking) while breakfasting on a coffee and doughnut is a necessary procedure. And it’s a very friendly culture so if someone should happen to call you on your cell phone while you’re doing this and shaving, it would be rude not to take the call.

And finally, this is a big country so settle down for a long trip. We got on the I95 for a trip south and heard our GPS say, ‘Drive 632 miles and turn right’. I kid you not.

Have a safe trip.

PS. It seems curious signage works both ways. Americans may get the giggles from  ‘Way out’ signs when  driving round multistory car parks in the UK – ‘Hey, way out, man.’ Hump signs seem to bring on chuckles too.


 Posted by at 5:31 am

  11 Responses to “A guide for Brits driving in the US”

  1. Something that always fools me when i drive in the states (as a brit) are the four way stop signs.
    I have an inbuilt cultural need to go if no one is moving, in London if you don’t do this you will forever be waiting.
    The rule there is – see a gap, take it.
    So i usually offend everyone for the two or three weeks it takes for me to adjust.
    On your list of road signs that make you chuckle there might be room for _ Hard Shoulder?

  2. This is great 🙂 I think “undertaking” is indeed prevalent, and then that same person might be done shaving or have finished his call and come up from the rear to overtake you on either side. As long as he isn’t humping for 40 yards you should indeed have a safe trip… The monstrous bumpers are about 3 times the size of our normal, sorry, European ones, so what’s wrong with just six inches’ distance? Unless, that is, you’re the one in the VW beetle…

    Thanks for providing peels of laughter on this cold, rainy Monday morning.

  3. Not all that straightforward on this side of the pond either. Have you noticed how in the UK the name of a street is only shown at both end of that street? Saves a few pennies on signs I guess but not very handy when you drive into the street somewhere around the half point. But then who needs signs and street names these days? GPS rules!

  4. Those 4 way stop signs are indeed confusing, Chris. And many seem to carefully positioned so they’ll be obscured by abundant foiliage in summer.
    Anne, I hadn’t thought about those bumpers, but you’re quite right. If you add a couple of foots-worth of bumper for the vehicle in front and the vehicle behind, the stopping distances must be much the same.
    And Kati, no, it had never occured to me that having names halfway along a British street would be a good idea – duh! Guess I’ve been wearing my ethnocentric glasses too long.
    The most confusing place I’ve ever lived for finding my way was actually Tokyo. I could never get the hang of the numbering system for buildings. Then someone explained it was chronlogical – so the first one built was number one, and then another one at the other end of the street would be number two and so on.

  5. I think the solution to Kati’s problem is to have one long street name sign stretching along the entire street

    If only the Japanese system was so easy and logical! It is in fact chronological within a block (often of somewhat irregular size and even shape), rather than along a street

  6. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but they do say the Japanese invented fax machines so they could send one another maps. Unfortunately they hadn’t been invented when I worked there, and I spent a lot of time try trying to find places.
    So the building might be on any of four roads that define the block? (Or three roads if it’s a triangular block?) Well that would explain a lot. Thanks Alex.

  7. […] When I lived in Japan, I was mystified by the street numbers and constantly lost.  Alex Case  stopped by a while ago and kindly enlightened me. In case you missed his explanation, I’ve just come across this two minute TED video that explains all and some other delightful stuff. Enjoy! Gosh, if only I had understood that when I lived in Toyko. Now if  I could just crack the road signs in Philadelphia,… […]

  8. I wonder if there’s anything in the US that can compete with Swindon’s magic roundabout 🙂


  9. Oh lovely link Evan. Thank you!
    But scary sounds or not, the rule is always the same – if in doubt slow down and go left – you can always correct yourself later.
    The scary thing about entering a traffic circle here is the rule seems to be to speed up and hurl yourself into the oncoming traffic – the faster you go the less likely a collision. Argh!

  10. Hey,

    brilliant article, we were in the States driving for 10 weeks and had similar experiences. We wrote a full guide that your readers might find helpful –

  11. Thom and Sean,
    Many thanks for your link – it’s a must read for Brits driving in the US I think – really enjoyed it.

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