Roundabouts, hook turns and driving, oh my!

I’m very much behind in blog posts, but rather than jumping ahead to where I am now, I’ll just play catch up with my posts for the next week or two.

A couple of weeks ago I played house/pet sitter for my adviser and his family. Back home, nothing of this would be of note, but as with most things, even the simplest tasks become a bit of a challenge when in a new environment (culture, country, continent, etc). My big challenge with this was that they live a bit (more than a bit really) outside of the city and nowhere near easy public transport. Not having needed anything BUT public transport since January made suddenly needing to drive a car on the other side of the road (I’ve been told I’m not allowed to call it the “wrong” side of the road) quite an overwhelming idea.

I had some informal driving lessons from my adviser for the few weeks leading up to their planned holiday. I felt fairly confident aside from having a tendency to veer towards the sidewalk due to a complete lack of spatial awareness while sitting on the other side of the car. Still, my confidence was likely enhanced by the fact that I had a passenger taking care of all my navigation, whilst my only task was keeping the car on my side of the road. The real question still remained—once I was alone, in a suburb 30 minutes away from my Uni (and city life in general), would I be able to safely navigate myself, or would I simply adapt a hermit lifestyle and avoid all travel entirely.

I’ve never been one to shy away from a challenge, so as you can probably imagine, I tackled the issue head on and drove every day of the week. I was surprised at how quickly I adapted to the driving culture here. Roundabouts have always terrified me, but luckily in the U.S. they are quite a rarity. I remember my college town shutting down roads for months to drop in a roundabout to replace a couple of traffic lights on a busy street, only to remove in a few weeks later due to accidents occurring DAILY. Americans just aren’t used to roundabouts and how they work. Here, no only are roundabouts not a rarity, in the suburbs they are commonplace. Two lane roundabouts are a norm and you are meant to attack them as passive driving and waiting for an opening will only lead to long waits, and some angry honks from behind.

I avoided driving into the city at all costs because in the CBD they have these horrid things called “hook turns.” Hook turns are where you want to turn right (equivalent to a left turn in the states—remember, we are on the other side of the road), but instead of their being a right hand turn lane, you actually pull to the far LEFT lane to make your right turn. Obviously you have to wait for an arrow as otherwise you’d be cutting across both directions of traffic, but the whole setup is just bizarre to me. It does help the flow of traffic so people wanting to go through the intersection don’t have to wait for people turning right across traffic, but it also means when you drive in the city you need to know which turns are normal and which require you to be in the far left lane. I know I said I don’t shy away from a challenge, but let’s just say I avoided this one entirely.

I think it’s quite easy to tune out a bit during a drive because every movement and reaction is so habitual, but when I was driving that week in Australia, I found myself to be so focused that I’d almost have a headache after some of my longer drives. It’s not that the driving was difficult, it’s just that I always had to think about every little action. I can’t tell you how many times I tried to signal a turn with my windshield wipers because for some reason the turn signal and windshield wiper knobs are reversed here. Whenever I wanted to make a turn, I had to really think through which side of the road I’d be turning into. All of a sudden right turns are across traffic and left turns are super easy. But here you also can’t make left turns on red (whereas stateside right turns on red are a norm). I found myself getting very frustrated waiting for the lights every single time I wanted to turn and suddenly I had an appreciation for the roundabout.

Overall I would call my week of driving a success. I got everywhere I needed to be, caused no accidents, and even turned on the radio to listen to music (but not until about day 3). I haven’t had the need to drive since that week, but at least now I know if I ever want to borrow/rent a car, I am perfectly capable of successfully getting from point A to B…I just might clean my windshield a few times if there are any turns in my route.