Taking to the road in a new country can have its challenges. Imagine that you passed your driving test in rural Iowa and then move to Cairo, or that you grew up in the Welsh countryside and then move to the centre of Paris. Daunting, right?
Wherever you come from originally, there are bound to be some aspects of motoring in Canberra that catch you off guard, so here are my five top tips for driving like a local when you first arrive in Australia’s capital.
The ACT Road Rules Handbook classifies roundabouts as ‘intersections’. Here’s what it has to say on the subject: ‘Drivers must take action to avoid a crash. Sometimes this may mean giving way at intersections when the law would otherwise not require you to. In other words drive defensively so as to reduce your chance of a crash.’
This is not how you drive in Canberra. The correct protocol on approaching a roundabout is to get into the right hand lane and begin accelerating so that you are ready to overtake the car to your left and then cut them up as you enter the stretch of road beyond. Remember: Floor it, swerve and cut back in. Anything else just isn’t Canberran.
Major arterial roads
The Road Rules Handbook is very helpful here and offers all sorts of advice, suggesting that you ‘signal well before changing lanes’, ‘be ready and in the correct lane when approaching your exit ramp’, and most amusingly, ‘keep left at all times unless overtaking’.
There is a slight printing error in that the final line ‘but only do this if you are from out of town’ has been omitted, because, as any Canberran knows, on a two-lane highway, you sit in the right-hand lane at whatever speed you fancy. Unless you’re in a hurry of course, then you weave in and out of the traffic like you are auditioning for Starsky and Hutch gathering bonus points for every time another motorist flashes or toots you.
Official guidance on U-turns is highly idealistic and misses much detail. For example, it is suggested that ‘a driver must not make a U–turn at a break in a dividing strip on a road if there is a no U–turn sign.’ But it doesn’t say anything about doing a U-turn over the dividing strip.
There are all sorts of other suggestions too, but in Canberra there are only two rules for U-turns. First, U-turns are permissible anywhere if you encounter an unexpected traffic queue and have a plan B for how to get around it. Second, deciding whether a U-turn is appropriate depends on how much ground clearance you have and how big your car is. If you can off-road your way through a U-turn, then go for it, wherever you are.
Designated parking spaces
The Rules Handbook has lots to say about parking too, most entertainingly, not to park your vehicle ‘on a dividing strip, nature strip, painted island, footpath, bicycle path or shared path within a built up area’. However, that last rule for U-turns also applies to parking. Is the kerb small enough for you to mount it? Then any land beyond is a parking space. If the grass is flattened or bare from car tyres, then it has been a designated parking space for generations and ancestral rights overrule modern traffic regulations. The only basic rule is, if you can get there, it’s yours.
The Guide devotes seven pages to parking rules and etiquette, much of which is superfluous to the Canberran driver. Again, there are just two rules here over and above those governing designated parking spaces.
The first is that no matter how far you park from the car in the next bay, you must open your door in such a way as it makes contact with, and preferably dents, the car next to you. If you have passengers with you, encourage them to do the same with their doors. The only exemption from this Canberra tradition is for motorists who have spent in excess of $75,000 on their vehicle. Under such circumstances, you are permitted to abstain from this tradition by taking up two parking spaces or one disabled parking bay, whichever is the most irritating to onlookers.
Driving in Canberra can be confusing at first, but I hope these five simple tips help you to acclimatise quickly and drive like you have a Subaru Impreza on diplomatic plates, whatever the actual badge on your steering wheel.