Canadian driving — and urban walking — for perplexed British people
I learnt to drive in rural America, despite being English, and thought driving in Canada would be easy. And, once you’ve got over your irritation with automatic gears, it isn’t hard: roads are good, there’s much less traffic, and people, being Canadian, drive courteously. But a few things are disconcerting, even potentially dangerous, for new British drivers in Canadian towns and cities, and for British pedestrians too. They’re mostly to do with the relationships between vehicles and pedestrians. Here’s what I didn’t know — more than 1,300 words of it.
Manners. Canadians mostly drive more slowly, more courteously, and with more generosity to pedestrians than do British drivers. If you’re a pedestrian and look like you’re about to cross a busy multi-lane road in town, drivers in both directions will often stop for you, unimaginable in the UK, and that’s when you’re jaywalking (on which, more below) and possibly committing an offence.
Pedestrians repay this courtesy, and not doing so is risky: Canadian drivers won’t expect people to cross, other than at a stopped crossing, as hurried urban Brits often do. Use the crossing and wait for the signal.
Traffic lights. You’d think a green light always means you have the right of way, but it doesn’t. You have the right of way if you’re going straight on. But, if you’re turning, pedestrians crossing the street onto which you’re turning will likely have the white man signal. (Canada’s white man signal is the UK’s green man.) Despite your green light, you must wait for them to finish crossing.
And a red light isn’t always ‘stay there’, either. If you’re turning right, a red light acts as a stop sign (unless there’s a sign telling you ‘no turn on red’). Stop first. Then, if there’s nothing coming from the left, and no pedestrians crossing, you can drive through a red light to turn right. The same applies to turning left onto a one-way street. It feels gloriously naughty.
All this means you can sometimes never turn right. When your light’s green, there are pedestrians crossing the cross-street, so you have to wait. When your light’s red, there are vehicles coming from the left, so you have to wait. There’s a cautious driver at a junction in downtown Vancouver who’s been waiting to turn right for over fourteen years.
Another pitfall for British drivers with Canadian (and American) traffic lights is that the lights often aren’t in line with the stop-line. At junctions they’re typically hung on the far side of the junction. If your attention wanders, especially at night, you can get in serious trouble if your cortical autopilot’s programmed to stop in line with the red light.
Beware junctions that contain both traffic lights (controlling traffic on the major road) and stop signs (controlling traffic on the minor road). Combined with vehicles parked right next to junctions — on which more below — they can be really hard to enter safely if you’re on the minor road. No-one likes these junctions.
Stop signs. Everyone knows about North American stop signs: you have to come to a complete stop. At a four-way (or all-way) stop — a junction where all vehicles have a stop sign — the next vehicle to move is the one that got there first — so, as you approach the junction, you’re in a Scottish reel with the other drivers, watching and working out who’s next.
What’s harder for British drivers is that stop-signs are also pedestrian crossings. If you’re driving, look all around the junction to see if there are pedestrians crossing or about to cross: they’ll expect vehicles to wait for them, won’t hurry, and may not even look. Brits need to reprogram ourselves to treat all stop-signs as zebra crossings.
This can be perplexing if you’re a pedestrian, because it’s not always easy to see if there is a stop-sign: it’ll be pointing away from you. You’re usually looking for the grey hexagon that’s the back of a stop-sign — nothing more. Drivers will wait for you to cross, so don’t hang around looking like you might cross unless you’re going to do so. Brits and Canadians share our overdeveloped social anxiety about causing trivial inconvenience to strangers.
A flashing red light is a stop sign. Traffic lights sometimes turn themselves into stop signs at certain times of day this way. A flashing yellow means just ‘slow down and be careful’. (Flashing green lights are pedestrian-activated crossings.)
Pedestrian crossings. I’m still puzzled by these. Rectangular white pedestrian crossing signs on the side of the road mean cars are meant to stop for you, but the signs and the road markings don’t stand out the way Belisha beacons and zebra crossings do, so drivers often miss them. Don’t count on vehicles to stop. Zebra-crossing marks on the road don’t always mean that pedestrians have the right of way. Be careful. Most pedestrian road-crossing happens at traffic lights and stop-signs. There are some crossings (other than at road junctions) where you press a button and wait: drivers then get a red light. These ones work.
Children. Driving’s generally limited to 30 km/h (19 mph) around schools during school hours. But the signs (white portrait-orientation oblong with the details and, at the top, a yellow background and ‘SCHOOL’ or children walking) are easy to miss if your eye’s not tuned to them.
School busses — the big orange things with arched tops familiar from American TV — are treated with serious respect by drivers and the law. They often have flashing amber lights and sometimes a stop-sign that swings out from the left side. Don’t overtake school busses: stop and wait.
Jaywalking. This means pedestrians crossing other than at a crossing. It’s sometimes illegal, and is less acceptable in Canada than it is in the UK, perhaps partly because of friendly Canadian drivers stopping to let you cross even when you shouldn’t be crossing. Likewise crossing at pedestrian crossings when the signal says you shouldn’t be crossing. Hard to get used to if you grew up navigating the streets of London on foot: breathe deeply and wait.
Roundabouts. These disconcert North Americans. The rules are the same as for a British roundabout (you give way to the left, obviously) but no-one seems to signal. People are meant to signal right before they exit, but they don’t. And there’s no expectation that you signal left on entering a roundabout that you’re using to turn left. If in doubt, give way to pedestrians — not because you’re necessarily required to, but because, at a Canadian roundabout, no-one knows what the hell’s going on. Go slowly and watch everyone else, including pedestrians, carefully.
Parking. It’s illegal to park within six metres of a junction, crosswalk, stop sign, or traffic light but this rule is routinely ignored (more so than in the UK) and seldom enforced. This can make it dangerously hard to enter big roads from small roads.
It’s also illegal to park within five metres of a fire hydrant, which I learnt only while writing this.
And, if you’re parallel parking, you have to leave your car pointing in the direction of the traffic, even when it’s perfectly safe to park on the opposite side of the road. You don’t notice that everyone’s parked facing one way until it’s pointed out to you by an initially perplexing ticket on your windscreen: the police consider it a good use of their time to enforce this peculiar North American rule.
Your driver’s licence. Unlike in the UK, you’re required to have your driver’s licence with you when you’re driving: if you’re pulled over you could be fined for not being able to produce it on the spot.
All in all, driving is, like so much else a lot more pleasant in Canada than it is in the UK.
In British Columbia, if you really want to know more, you could read Learn to Drive Smart. Presumably part of a series that includes Learn to Write Grammatical, it’s BC’s equivalent of the UK’s Highway Code.