…And a Mini Driving Adventure
by Vivian Williamson-Bryan
In light of our first episode of The Great American Road Trip, I thought perhaps our reading audience might find the somewhat different driving conditions prevalent in the Virgin Islands an interesting comparison.
For many of you out there I’m sure you think “driving is driving, so what?” But as it has done with so many other things, these islands have managed to instill that usually forthright business with a few twists and turns that are peculiar to this area.
The most obvious difference when you leap behind the wheel here is that traffic is coming at you in your lane (unless you happen to be a resident of Great Britain or one of its former colonies or Japan). We drive on the left. And when you visit and feel compelled to comment on this fact (quite understandable since it’s usually quite a disconcerting experience the first few times you find yourself where you think you don’t belong) please note that the proper reference is left side (visitors who exclaim “you drive on the wrong side!” don’t earn lots of brownie points).
This driving on the left is a leftover from Danish Colonial days (they, of course, have long switched over to the right) and the story goes that the reason we didn’t switch when the United States bought us is because the donkeys were too stubborn to change (cars were very few and far between in 1917 – sure-footed donkeys were much more suited to this mountainous terrain). Such four footed transportation is actually at the root of left handed driving: Customarily one mounts a horse from the left (again historic reasons – the majority of the world is right handed and therefore a man’s sword would have been worn on the left, so in order not to impale oneself or the horse…) Roads in olden days were dirt, more often than not mud, liberally sprinkled with droppings from that faithful transportation – in other words, a smelly morass. The sides of the road were hard, sometimes grassy, and in towns and cities, had sidewalks made of wood. I’m sure the picture is clear. So, if the decision makers of that time had to make the choice of ride on the right and dismount in the middle of the road or ride on the left and keep one’s toes clear of the muck, which way do you think they voted?
There is one major difference, though, between us and those other places that have retained the driving on the left custom. We drive cars with the steering wheel on the left instead of the right. They need a wheel on the right, we don’t. We don’t have any freeways, motorways, or other high speed roads. As a matter of fact our average driving speed is about 25 mph and 4th gear is a rarity (the limit is all of 35 – and you moan about yours!). Overtaking opportunities (legal and/or safe ones, that is) are almost nil and lane changing is pretty much restricted to the less than 3 mile stretch between town and the airport. So sitting in the middle of the road in order to have the best views of the cars around you loses a little of its importance. However, what we do have is lots of very narrow, twisting roads that hug the edge of the mountainside. And when driving those roads and meeting a gargantuan water delivery truck going the opposite way, it’s very comforting being able to stick your head out of the window (or even open the driver’s side door in very hairy situations) to gauge just how far you can move over without tumbling down the cliff! See? It really does make sense when you look beyond the obvious.
Another difference in island driving is the use of the horn. What is in other places an almost unnecessary adjunct to a car’s equipment is here a vital element in the art of motoring. We have become veritable virtuosos in the language of car horns. Not for us the serene driving behavior of the average northern European (note I did qualify that) or North American (again qualified). We fit in more with the Italians and hot blooded Latin types. There are times the horn is quite necessary (those narrow, twisty roads) and then it’s just a quick and polite beep, beep when approaching a particularly blind corner. At other times, e.g., when some fool in the other lane decides to overtake a line of cars and is barreling straight at you, the horn blast is prolonged and is conveying a definite message as to the intelligence and lineage of said fool. The same usage holds true for warning others away from a desired parking space. And, of course, there is always the quick staccatto exchange of greetings when friends and acquaintances pass each other (and since this is such a small island where everyone knows nearly everyone else, there’s lots of this type of horn usage). The other time when horns are widely used is during another of our singular habits.
This habit, and I will not presume to call it unique since very little in this world would qualify for that designation, is one that in most towns, cities, villages or whatever you might choose to call a population center would quickly earn a traffic citation for the miscreant. This charming practice is the one of stopping, sometimes in the middle of a line of traffic, sometimes on a momentarily deserted country road, to carry on a conversation with a pedestrian friend. So what’s so bad about that, you say? In normal circumstances nothing. No one minds a quick “hello” or “I’ll call you later.” The conversations I’m referring to can last for a number of minutes, with neither party seeming to notice the cars piling up behind. So, again we have horn etiquette. After a minute or so of chatting, a short tap on the horn. Another minute or so, a double tap of slightly longer duration. Only after waiting another 30 seconds is a long blast earned and at that point the driver knows time is up and he goes on his way with the other muttering drivers in his wake. I think this street chatting goes back to the days when phones were not very common except in business and people seized the opportunity to catch up and make plans whenever they ran into someone. (It’s only in the past 15 years that phones have become common in homes – our phone book used to be very thin. Phone courtesies are still sometimes thin on the ground here – not because people are rude – far from it, West Indians are very polite people – but because this is the first generation to have wide access to the instruments.) The habit is so widespread and evident that Herman Wouk described it quite well in his novel Don’t Stop The Carnival (if you are interested in our island way of life you really should read it).
Other than these few things I suppose driving here is pretty much as it is throughout the world. Except for one hand signal – not to be found in any driver’s manual or used anywhere else in the world that I’m aware of – that anyone who drives here should know (and that includes tourists in rental cars if you don’t want to be censured, abused or otherwise vilified!). When you see a driver’s arm hanging out of the window, usually almost straight down, that, of course, means stop. When that same arm is still hanging but now waggling vigorously, it means the driver has spotted a nice (but usually tight) parking space and will need room and time to maneuver into it. It is a recognized and respected signal and no one ignores it.
Idiosyncratic? Oh, yes. But the good thing is that drivers here are usually quite courteous and very patient. They accept the foibles of rental car drivers who sometimes pull out onto the wrong side (the right side!) of the road and nearly cause head on collisions. They are patient with obviously lost tourists, often stopping in the middle of the road (!) to offer assistance. Break down or have a flat and some Sir Galahad will appear almost instantaneously. And they’re courteous when it comes to ceding right of way or allowing someone to enter a line of traffic. Few people here are overly bothered about time (“running on island time” is a common term which boils down to being late) so why not let a few cars in front? In other words, the average Virgin Islander knows the limitations of our road system and knows that excessive fretting about them is a foolish waste of time. And why, with the beautiful scenery, sunshine and surrounding sea, would anyone get grey hair over such trifles?
So come, be brave and rent a car, and have A Great St Thomas Road Trip!