Changing gears

My kind of woman
I am convinced I was a rally driver in a previous life. Give me winding country roads, no traffic, and a car with a manual gear stick, and I am in my element. Slowing down coming into bends; speeding up as I exit. Changing gears smoothly as I climb hills, enjoying the constant drone of the engine as it ratchets up and down on cue. Eyes everywhere looking not just straight ahead but also keeping watch for stray animals that might pick the wrong moment to see what’s on the other side of the road. Senses on high alert constantly judging the distance from my wing mirror to the hedge. Speedometer rising and falling, adrenalin remaining constant. Simply heaven. When I was in school, others in my class looked up to pop stars and actors. I was hooked on Rosemary Smith – a dress-designer turned rally driver from Dublin. Her mantra:  ‘Driving is all psychological; you can overcome any difficulty if you set your mind to it.’ My kind of woman.

Not my kind of man
There are those who make their careers from driving and there are those who simply take some lessons, pass a test, and get a license to terrify. I’ve heard first-hand of someone who was having trouble mastering the art of driving in Budapest and lubricating his pass mark with a bottle of palinka. I live on Üllői út, a long, straight road, punctuated with myriad traffic lights that many boy-racers confuse for a race track. Revving up at the lights, waiting for the imaginary starter’s flag to drop, their impatience is palpable. Focused on making as much noise as possible, their sole intention appears to be to draw attention to their car, which has somehow become an extension of themselves. From zero to 60 in five seconds flat. Weaving in and out of traffic at high speed, they have little regard for other drivers. On wet days, when such antics are even more dangerous, dousing pedestrians by driving at speed through standing water becomes a sport of Olympic proportions. Definitely not my kind of man.

Keeping up with the flow
I failed my test the first time I took it. I ran a red light. It didn’t help when I tried to excuse myself by saying that I hadn’t seen it. That I passed the second time probably had something to do with my driving instructor running out of patience. When I went to the States, I had to take another test – but this time in an automatic (can driving an automatic really be considered driving?) I passed and was told that the key to freeway driving was to ‘keep up with the flow of traffic’. To me, that amounted to permission to go as fast as the car ahead of me, if I had the horsepower to do so. Easy. Forget the speed signs. Just keep his taillights in sight and all would be well.

In Malta, chaos reigns supreme at the roundabouts. Driving on the island is not for the timid. Forget about polite civility – it’s every man for himself. Forge ahead and occupy your space. A little like India without the noise and the colour. Yet every driver in the country knows where the speed cameras are. Viewed from overhead, I suspect that driving in Malta could be choreographed and set to music.

Driving on the motorways in Ireland, the key is to stay left and use the right lane to overtake only, careful not to give the impression of leapfrogging. There’s no quicker way to attract the attention of the traffic corps than to make like a frog. In Hungary though, I can’t find any logic. On the motorways, everyone seems to be in a huge hurry, travelling as if their very lives depend on them getting to their destination on time. In the cities, they turn off the speed switch and seem content to sit in traffic for hours, as the trams and buses sail blithely by. I don’t understand where this need for speed disappear to.

Carrots not sticks
Back in 2010, a chap from San Francisco – Kevin Richardson – won a competition (the Fun Theory) to solve the social challenge presented by speeding. His idea was quite simple. Speeding motorists would continue to be fined and a portion of these fines would be ring fenced as a lottery fund. Using speed camera technology, Richardson suggested a speed camera that would capture cars whose drivers were adhering to the speed limit. These drivers would then be eligible to win the speed lottery. This was tested in Stockholm over three days on a multilane street. The average speed of 32 km dropped to 25 km. Seems like a winner.  I wonder what it would take to pilot it on Üllői?

First published in the Budapest Times 30 March 2012

7 Responses

  1. Hungarian driving seems to have two general principles – if you see a car ahead of you, pass it as soon as you can; and on left-hand bends the white line should be under your number-plate.

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