Driving Me 'Round the Bend

24 Apr, 2005 | TravelTdp

I’ve been driving to one of the other offices in Holland for the last couple of weeks and I think I’m getting a feel for the Dutch driving experience. I’ve driven in a few different countries and the drivers all seem to have a different style, the Dutch are no exception.

When I started on the roads the first thing I had to get used to was driving on the wrong (i.e. the right) side of the road (read that again, it makes sense I promise). So, the steering wheel was on the wrong side of the car and I had to shift gears and use the handbrake with my right hand. I’ve driven on the right before, while I in the US and Canada, but mainly in cars that were automatics, so there was no/very little need to change gears. When you’ve been driving long enough for it to become subconscious, it isn’t easy to override your in-built reaction to reach down with to your left when you know it’s time to change gear. Harder still is overriding the reaction to look up and left to check my rear-view mirror. I kept using my left door mirror to look behind me. I’m also driving a diesel, which I haven’t done for any period of time before. In the UK I drive a petrol car, which revs to about 7,000 rpm and only switches into sport mode at about 3,500. My pool car tops out at 4,500 rpm. The pool car isn’t a turbo either, so it’s somewhat sluggish. On the other hand, it gets great mpg. I’m getting about 800-900 kms (500-562 miles) out of a tank which costs about £5 more than it takes to fill my tank in the UK and which only does about 200 miles (I haven’t factored in the native fuel prices though).

So, starting out with all those hindrances was a challenge, but I’m slowly getting there and now some of my bad habits (like driving with my hand rested on the gear stick all the time) have transferred over. I thought it would be tough switching between driving on different sides of the road every other weekend, but I was fine back in the UK, the main problem was re-adjusting to the biting point and the sharpness of the brakes in my car as opposed to the pool car.

There is, of course, the other issue of Dutch driving and Dutch roads. A lot of people drive with their lights on all the time here, night and day, rain and shine. I haven’t figured out why, if I need to have mine on, if I should have mine on all the time or what, but, in my view, it’s pointless and unnecessary. Lights are for two reasons: to help you negotiate the road in the dark and to make you more visible to other road users. Having them on in broad daylight fulfils neither of these needs, so turn them off! That leads nicely into the second weird thing I’ve found, the Dutch like to indicate even when there is no discussion of where they are going. What I mean is, when you’re in a left-turn-only lane, you’re going left, we all know you’re going left, you can only go left, there are bloody great big arrows on the road, dedicated traffic lights in some instances, so why switch your indicator on to show you’re turning left? Indicators, like lights, serve a purpose, they’re for communicating to other road users that you intend to change direction, whether it be to change lanes on a multi-lane road, or turn a corner into another road. When everyone knows where you’re going, there is no point in using them.

Indicator use is 50/50 when they’re doing other road manoeuvres though. I travel on the motorways a fair bit (not sure what they’re called in Holland; autobahns, highways, a-roads – they’re designated A something, A4, A13, etc) and I can’t believe some of the stuff that goes on. I like to leave a bit of a gap between me and the car in front, a few car lengths or so, to give me some reaction time and so that I can see around the car and look ahead to help predict what is coming my way on the road ahead. Unfortunately, this is more than enough space for any Dutch driver to consider pulling into. No problem on an open and fast moving road, but annoying when you’ve been sat in a queue for 30 minutes and some joker jumps in ahead of you at the last minute. So I’m starting to drive like a native and stay a lot closer to the car in front, unfortunately it seems that leaving a gap the size of a fag packet is an invitation as far as the Dutch are concerned. Short of attaching my bumper to the back of the car in front I can’t see a way of discouraging people from pulling in. I’m not sure if it’s just me, maybe I look like someone who will acquiesce and let them in. I’m thinking of getting a bandana, an eye-patch and a leather jacket with studs in, then asking the company to paint an angry-looking shark on the front and sides of the car, like a WWII warplane nose job, so people don’t mess with me. Of course, I could probably achieve the same result by randomly swerving out of the lane and breaking for no reason. Seems to work for old people.

Changing lanes takes on even more fun due to the road planning. It is not uncommon, when two large roads meet, not to bother with a slip road or fly-over. Instead, they merge the two roads, let them run side by side for a km or two and then branch off in separate directions again. What this means is that you end up with (usually) four lanes of traffic side-by-side, with half (or more) the people in the left two lanes wanting to be in the right two, and half (or more) the people in the right two lanes wanting to be in the left two. Genius. It’s immense fun at 100 kph when it’s flowing freely, it’s even more fun at gridlock when everyone is trying to defend their place in the queue. Maybe I should fit some automated machine-gun nests front and rear.

All in all it means I have to get up early to avoid traffic on the way in, leave early to avoid traffic on the way out (the later you leave the worse it is, go figure) and spend up to an hour and a quarter travelling a distance that it’s possible to cover in 30 minutes. Joy.

I forgot to add that jumping red lights is something of a national sport too. A one point three cars shot through a light that hadn't just gone red, my light had gone green and I was pulling away. Three cars!