Updated: October 31, 2016
Welcome to the fifth installment in my neverending Eurotrip series of driving. So far, we've done a fair share of motoring through five countries. Our first adventure was in Croatia. Then, we spent some time in Italy. After that, we nailed Germany's sweet autobahns and Belgium's straight, radar-enforced roads plus some racing at Spa on the third trip. The fourth driving trip took us to the nearby Netherlands. Now, we are going to conquer the British Empire.
Our journey shall be an interesting one: From Goodwood Motor Circuit in Chichester, in the south, to Donington Park Circuit in Midlands, two race track, shiver me timbers, approximately 300 odd km worth of highways, or shall we call them dual carriageways. But let us not forget a detour into the medieval streets of London, a few quick dashes through the countryside, and the counter goes up to well over 1,000 km worth of experiences. Two different cars, one BMW 330d and one Renault Captur. Plus a pinch of Civic Type-R. After me.
The state of roads
On paper, United Kingdom is a civilized country. But in reality, it probably has the worst road infrastructure in Europe. As I've already explained in my BMW review, the simple reason for this problem is that being an island and a powerful country, Britain has not been invaded by a foreign army in the last half a millennium. As such, it has not undergone the total reconstruction of its public roads that mainland Europe experienced after WWII. Consequently, it had never adapted to the boom of modern traffic and technologies.
This translates into a sad and sweet paradox. The abundance of relatively affordable cars, a thick scattering of racing courses, flat terrain and mild weather, and a rich heritage of motoring has bred a a strong culture of passionate driving, also known as petrolheadism, among the Brits. Alas, all this vast talent and pent-up energy can never quite be brought to bear on the highly restricted road infrastructure in the country. To wit, the fine and majestic armada of Audi RS3s, Ford Focus STs, and Porsche 911s can never really spread its wings. Forlornly, it follows the lead of Priuses puttering along at a comfortable 59 mph. But let us elaborate.
Hold my carriage, guv
If you need quick sobering up, just remember that fast roads in the UK are referred to as carriageways. Things what horses used to pull back in the day when opium was a recreational sweetener, Charles Dickens was the golden ruler for household discipline, Sherlock Holmes was all the rage, and Victorian houses bloomed left and right with their ugly, overcrowded detail. Fast forward 130 years or so, very little has changed. The UK still pines after its glorious imperial past, the houses still have that ultra-clutter and orphanic brick quality, and the roads are just as narrow, except they are now marauded by huge, wide, heavy cars.
But this is only a part of a much bigger problem. The infrastructure is the coffin. The driving style and the road rules and regulations are the lid and the nails and the exorcist's whisper. We shall elaborate in a jiffy. Let us focus on the tarmac for a little while longer.
If you go M - M stands for motorways, there's some hard shoulder, but overall, the roads aren't that exciting. None of that sweeping glory that you get in places like the Netherlands or Germany. Then, the speed limits are also quite disheartening. 60 or 70 mph, roughly 90 and 110 km/h if you will, which is on the low end of what Western Europe does. Even the nominal 130 km/h in most other places is way too low, and the radar-enforced nonsense in Belgium and the Netherlands is equally laughable. But the UK pushes the limits with numbers that were possibly comfortable for early 90s, if then, despite having a brand new modern fleet of powerful cars ridings its roads. Congestion sure does not help - which can explain the safety factor in the numerical conservatism.
If you go A - A stands for something else, go figure. In other words, roads that are normally not motorways, but you can still develop some decent speed, anywhere between 70 km/h and about 90 km/h. There, there's less traffic and a bit more challenge slash fun. But the enjoyment comes with a price, and a snag or two.
No hard shoulder. Anywhere.
I don't know why, but there's no hard shoulder on non-motorway roads (AKA A/B roads and such). Narrow lanes, unfriendly debris on the sides, horses, and other countryside memorabilia all mean you cannot really drive the way driving is meant to be done. No wide entries into corners, no clipping the apex, none of the stuff that you can easily do everywhere else. If there's oncoming traffic, you can't really edge toward the shoulder to give yourself and the other car a bit more room. So you must slow down, and you must watch carefully, because if someone decides to veer into your lane, there's nowhere to escape. This makes for a rather unrelaxing driving.
Then, let's not forget the petrol heads. Like girls, they wanna have fun. So they go to these less used roads, far from public scrutiny and the Big Brother cameras, and they floor it like mad, trying to bleed their frustration in a bout of recklessness. Which means not only you need to keep an eye on livestock and Hobbits, you also need to be careful you don't get segfaulted by a boy racer.
A272 - Telegraph Road
When you're visiting a place, you try to hit at least one or two popular landmarks. A272 is considered a popular driver's road. It's rural, it's got curves, and in early morning hours, it is frequented by bikers and boy racers. Which means it is worthy of mention in a car review, or a Eurotrip rant. In fact, it sounds like a great opportunity to test the BMW SPORT and SPORT+ modes.
Alas, for the entire length of the road, I was stuck first behind a van, driving a gentle and sedate 60 km/h, and then an oil-and-blue-smoke-spitting 50cc bike commanded by an old man with an ill-fitting camera, who never once crossed the 40km/h mark, and wouldn't move from the center of the lane to let me or anyone else behind him pass. Fun was not meant to be in the Old Empire.
Back to motorways - The eyes of the ranger are upon you
If only this was Walker, Texas Ranger, there's be some kickassery and fun. Nope. Congestion. Remember congestion? Well, that's one of the maladies plaguing the motorways. Cameras are the second. Yup. Britain has speed cameras everywhere. Literally. Roughly every one or two km, there's a device waiting to snag the odd criminal, i.e. everyone and their sister.
Now, everyone knows where these cameras are, so what people normally do is speed like mad in between, the break like lunatics when they reached the road markers. This leads to hectic driving, traffic jams, and no fun at all. Average speed cameras are a much better solution, as they really calm the traffic. I didn't like what they do in Belgium and the Netherlands, but I prefer that to the UK method. And Italy was even better. At the very least, you can plow on at a steady 130-140 km/h, and with everyone behaving normally, it's all right really.
Croatia solves the speeding problem in a different way. They call for a 50% discount and no points for people willing to pay the fine for speeding on the motorways up to 50 km/h above the allowed speed limit. This means you can drive 200 km/h, as 10% is deducted from the speed radar due to accuracy, ergo 180 km/h, ergo 50 km/h above the speed limit, and then you're given a chance to pay only half the fine. Sweet but possibly dangerous, then, there aren't any real accidents on the motorways.
Middle lane idiots
This brings us to the third and most acute problem - the driving culture. On one hand, we have the aficionados and petrolheads, people who love their engines, their torque, and their precision. And then you have the random lot of idiots who treat driving like accountancy. Something that needs to be done with the minimum amount of giving a shit.
Then, in the UK, legally, you are not allowed to undertake - this means overtaking the car from the left side, which would be equivalent to overtaking on the right in countries driving on the normal side. So what often happens on three-lane motorways is as follows: The slow (left) lane is completely empty. The middle lane is infested by Prius drivers going about 60 mph, surely less than the allowed speed limit. Then, the fast lane (right) is congested with frustrated drivers trying to overtake the middle-lane morons while keeping an eye on speed cameras.
I have never witnessed a more ridiculous phenomenon, and I've driven in tons of countries. Even in the Middle East, there are better manners and more consideration. Effectively, 33% of the motorways are under-utilized due to the middle-lane hoggers, the police don't do anything to take them off the road as they do in other countries, and as a result, there's a huge amount of traffic jams and anguish in the inner lane. Videos to follow.
It is almost impossible to drive safely and serenely in the UK whilst maintaining a constant speed. If you want to drive at 70 mph, which is the max. allowed speed, you will rarely go a km before you need to break or overtake someone. For any random reason you can think.