I was introduced to the principle of muscle memory from my high school basketball coach who was trying desperately to turn me into someone who could actually make a foul shot. Many years later, I came to understand the power of muscle memory while trying to make a left turn in Australia.
If you drive a car you know about turns, left or right, you’ve made thousands. And therein lies the problem. Thousands of times when I’ve pulled up to a stop sign to turn left, I look both ways to make sure no traffic is coming and I cross to the far side of the road to be on my way.
The problematic part is if you’re in Australia, when you turn left, the lane you want to turn into is not on the far side of the road, it’s on the near side. Being a former British Colony, Australia got its rules of the road from the Mother Country which very much enjoys driving on what most Americans believe to be the wrong side of the road.
It certainly feels like the wrong side of the road when I was entering an intersection and my brain was telling me “near lane” and my muscles were trying to do what they’ve always done before, pull into the far lane.
I’m an even worse passenger than I am a driver. While sitting up front when my friend Alan was driving, I couldn’t stop from bracing myself with the dash in total panic whenever he turned left into what my muscles were sure was oncoming traffic. Of course I didn’t gracefully brace myself on the dash. It was the “Oh crap, we’re going to die” kind of slapping on the dash, performed to my great embarrassment.
What was frustrating to me was I couldn’t seem to stop doing it. Even when I focused on upcoming turns, preparing myself to accept entrance into the near lane, my body, and it seemed every muscle in my body, would flinch in the moment we performed the turn. I learned to overcome it by sitting in the back seat and not paying any attention to what maneuvers the vehicle was making.
Driving on highways was much easier. Although, from time to time, there was some mind confusion because all those cars going the other direction were on the wrong side of me. The main problem on the freeway was judging where my car was in the lane. Driving from the right side of the car and deciding where the fog line or even the center lane was, proved difficult. Fortunately the highways we drove had rumble strips on the fog line and provided clear data that my eyes could not manage.
One of the curiosities of driving in Australia for me was the roundabout. The nation’s road designers evidently have an aversion to traffic signals and believe there is no traffic intersection problem that can’t be solved by a roundabout. They have tiny roundabouts on back streets and alleys, medium size roundabouts on city streets and huge roundabouts on highways and freeways.
Talk about muscle memory! Entering a roundabout at 50 km requires muscle memory and some trust of fellow drivers. I was much too timid and created more than a little exasperation among fellow drivers. (I say that assuming certain hand signals have the same meaning in Australia they do in America.)
The road signs made driving in Australia fun. Aussie’s have their own way of talking. “Steaks on the Barbie” for instance. Our traveling companion tried to buy some sunglasses but was met only by blank stares until the clerk realized she wanted a pair of “sunnies.” That penchant for “Aussie” communication also manifests in their road signs.
One sign we had seen on a recent trip to the British Isles, “Way Out” is also the Australian version of our “Exit.”
I liked “Wrong Way” signs because they always had the obvious but helpful tag “Go Back.”
“Give Way” made me wish I had a few to bring home and post on the very busy onramp near our home.
Being a fast food junkie, I probably would have died of starvation before I realized that “Take Away” meant “Drive Through.” Fortunately, my wife is much more intuitive than I am.
Freeways come equipped with pullouts for anyone in need, helpful in many ways, they’re announced by a “Stopping Bay” sign. “Passing Lanes” are given the designation of “Overtaking Lane.”
Some signs conveyed their message without words. Speed bumps were announced by a bump drawn on a flat line, like a child’s stick figure drawing of a hat. Drivers are alerted to a pedestrian crossing by two feet depicted on a sign.
Thankfully one sign was exactly like its counterpart back home. The “Stop” sign is the same in size, shape and color. Coming to one made me feel, for a brief moment, that I knew what I was doing.
I enjoyed our driving experience in Australia. It’s a magnificent, scenic country full of warm-hearted people. Yes, they do have their own way of talking, and their own culture of driving, but we can’t wait to go back.