Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Driving Conventions II

I wrote a bit earlier about driving conventions.

Another MM, a friend of mine, now a Nederlander, responded:

Allow me if you will to chime in on a recent post regarding the questionable driving habits of Europeans. Here in Holland it’s white knuckle and a prayer time driving anywhere on the highways—dense, speeding traffic, tailgating at over 100k; lanes about as wide as a car and everyone, it seems, not seeming too care one wit about the other fellow. Belgium worse. Shameful. You get a sort of sick feeling in your guts after surviving a spin through there. My wife has to drive to Brussels every month or so for her job. ‘Dear God,’ I say outloud, ‘please bring her home alive. Amen.’

We live in a small Dutch village between Amsterdam and Utrecht. There are 8000 of us in this postcard pretty village that dates back to medieval times. We’ve got cow pastures and horse stables and grazing sheep; the swans glide easily through the canals past coots and ducks and docked little boats; we’ve got two churches: the new one is Catholic and dates to the 1850s; the old Protestant one is from the 1400s; if you could afford to take your eyes off the road for more than a split second you could see both church spires from the highway. (The Catholic one is a tad higher.) Cherry trees line a lot of the narrow streets and there’s a lot of birch about everywhere else; everyone makes their postage stamp sized gardens into a bit of paradise; the place looks good in snow. When the summer tour buses come through town you know the bus driver is inching toward the microphone and cutting loose with, ‘look folks, a postcard pretty Dutch village. Ain’t it grand?’ But don’t look too close good people—pay no mind to those speeding cars wiping around blind corners and tearing down narrow streets past the rugrats standing outside the daycare houses; ignore that SUV slurving between the cars parked on either side of the street, the one righting itself a foot or two from the uncurbed sidewalk where a kid and his oma (grandma) are walking; close your eyes when you see a car mounting the sidewalk to get around another car he has waited an entire 3 seconds for; just do what we do here and give a Dutch shrug and look the other way.

The speed limit through this old place is 30k throughout. That’s about 19 mph and you’re probably saying ‘you whiner, that’s fair for residential.’ But you all are out there in ‘elsewhere.’ This is Holland – 16 million of us, shoe horned into a place just a little bigger than New Jersey. And Dutch villages are cramped places, built with teeny weeny streets—streets where ‘curb’ parking is necessary and sidewalks are arm-width. The cars zip by, just a few feet from your toes. Think of alleys between rows of houses with a tiny sidewalk on either side—that’s a road here.

Common sense and decency might be enough for a driver to ease off the gas a tad when they’re about to graze the ankles of their neighbors, but since the law says you can go 30k, well it’s their right to go 30k, no matter the situation they might come across. But deference is a sign of weakness here and believe me, the Dutchies will be sure to remind you of their entitlement to go 30k (and more if they feel inclined) even though good sense would dictate otherwise.

It’s about 6pm and I just returned from a beer run. I should have ridden my bike along the canal to the tiny snack bar near the bridge but opted to take the car. I parked the car near the snack bar and tried crossing the brick road to the other side, waiting for a break in the line of traffic coming on and off the tiny bridge over the canal. While standing there I noticed a woman riding with her toddler on a bakfiets* on the edge of the narrow road while cars that have waited for their turn to cross the ‘single lane only’ bridge come racing off, one after another, just inches from the lady and her kid. You’d have to see it to believe it.


*A long bicycle with a bucket like thing on the front to set your kid in...