London driving: last transferable skill

I have lived in the U.K. for some time now, but until this week I had never tried one of the crucial activities that make this country one of a minority: driving on the left side of the road.

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I have lived in the U.K. for some time now, but until this week I had never tried one of the crucial activities that make this country one of a minority: driving on the left side of the road.

This might have something to do with a feeling I experienced the first time I stepped into a black cab — namely, the overwhelming fear that my death was imminent. The roads looked half the size of the ones at home, yet buses, vans, cars and cyclists took to them at paces that suggested race car driver Michael Shumacher was recruiting a stunt double.

By the time I was approaching my first roundabout (a faster, more confusing and extremely common version of the rare traffic circle in Alberta), my knuckles were white from gripping the edge of the seat (there were no handles) and my face was blue from forgetting to breathe (it didn’t seem a priority).

I survived that journey. However, my next few experiences were equally tortuous. It was not long after that I discovered that sitting backwards, with no option of a seatbelt and nothing but loose luggage to embrace for dear life, does nothing to improve taxi travel in Britain.

Five years on and I’m much better adjusted to motor transport. I’ve braved all the options — even the double-decker bus often captured in images of London. However, it has to be said that the close proximity of oncoming traffic seems much less alarming when you are sitting a good metre above it all!

This week, my road nerves returned again as I geared up for my first British driving lesson. I was a reasonable driver in Canada, perfectly capable of handling the wide motorways around Red Deer in an automatic car.

I even remember the interior of my first vehicle — a Toyota Corolla, complete with fuzzy dice and a hula dancer who shook away lightheartedly on the dashboard. Driving was simple then — fun even.

Yet when I got behind the wheel (reminding myself to get into the right side) of a tiny, manual car, sandwiched tightly between hundreds of other tiny, manual cars lining the tiny, single lane streets of North London, I was hardly reminded of fuzzy dice and hula dancers.

There was a gear stick, handbrake, clutch, brake pedal and gas pedal, and it was all a little too much.

“Put the car into gear,” my friendly, relaxed instructor said. I emphasize his relaxed manner, as I would have had my foot firmly placed on the brake pedal at that point if I had been him.

I automatically reached to my right — grabbed the door handle and hesitated before sticking to the plan and reaching to my left to find the gear stick on the other side of me.

“Find the breaking point on the clutch.” I did. The car raced ahead. Well, it felt like it raced ahead. I slammed on the brake just centimetres before hitting the bumper of the car in front.

My instructor remained calm. And he did so throughout the entire two-hour lesson.

Somehow I managed to pull out of that parking space. I even drove around the block multiple times, carefully avoiding the parked vehicles and oncoming cars with which I shared the lane.

I reminded myself to do the reverse of everything I had ever learned about driving upon reaching every turn.

Amazingly, I survived my first driving lesson. I stalled twice, ran over the curb once, and nearly T-boned one car by racing forward instead of braking at an intersection. Not a bad track record for lesson one?

In any case, the instructor remained calm. He even agreed to a second lesson. So while I learned a little about driving on the other side of the road this week, I learned a lot more about the unshakable nerve of U.K. driving instructors.

Until next time, I return to the streets of London as a pedestrian, still reminding myself which way to look when I cross the road.

Brit Kennedy grew up in Red Deer and graduated from Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School. She attended university in Scotland and is now living and working in London, England.