- Driving -

A Friendly Warning

As you drive away from the Fishbourne ferry terminal you should see a sign which warns that 'Island roads are different'. This page is intended to expand on that cryptic claim as roads are but roads but it is the experience of driving on ours that is likely to be found different. Furthermore the effect of that difference will depend on the personality of the driver and the behaviour of the drivers he encounters. Those who do not see the sign perhaps should allow someone else to drive.

Forget your motorways and all that they imply, for here you will not find one. Similarly forget dual carriageways for we have but a mere half a mile of that and the roundabouts at each end are just about our only two worthy of the name, so as you can already see motoring here is unlikely to be as you know it. Just relax, you are on holiday so is it not best to try to enjoy what we do have in abundance, i.e. our narrow, twisting and often picturesque country lanes? You will be going nowhere fast certainly, so get used to that idea from the outset and then you will enjoy your motoring here as it will work as a perfect rest-cure for you and your probable bad driving habits. You will of course be accustomed to small town driving, so I have little to say about that. However you should note that there are the usual hazards of cyclists who zoom out from side roads without so much as a glance, and that white hatched areas of roads are usually ignored by the locals. The meaning of the yellow lines of a box junction is not understood at all here, so it is pointless to hoot at an offender. Jay walkers abound and so do white-haired little old ladies who can barely see above the steering wheel as they fiendishly drive their Morris Minors in the manner of Mr.Toad. Please don't abuse them either, those old dears are well loved here, knowing as we do that such womenfolk are invariably wealthy widows and hence an essential partial mainspring of our economy.

At this point I should mention that most residents here drive cars bearing either a 'DL' or 'HW' index number. This knowledge should be used by the visitor to identify and as far as possible stay well away from vehicles so marked, thus providing a degree of mutual self preservation for Vectensians and visitor alike. For example, within the first few minutes on our roads you may well be startled at the way in which mini roundabouts are so contemptuously ignored. Accordingly the next time you are nearly shunted, check the index of the offender and you will surely see that the cause of your palpitations was a native. The trouble is you see, to compensate for our lack of large roundabouts we were allocated an excess of very small ones instead, most being positioned at the centre of crossroads where the space available is patently far too small to accommodate them, i.e. almost as though the people who planned them were not drivers themselves. So most people tend to drive at least one wheel over them as a matter of necessity, this being possible as for the sake of economy raised centre humps were rarely installed. In any case when first presented with these novelties many Islanders did not understand the demanded etiquette of allowing progress from the right and hence chose to ignore them, the attitude being 'Here is a crossroads in the middle of which some fool has painted a large and mysterious white blob. I think that is plain silly so I will, as before, just turn left or right or drive straight across if that's where I want to go, and if I am on the more important road then I have priority.'

Those who transgressed the new requirement were not punished and thus their belief that either laws about the things did not really exist, or if they did that they would not be enforced, was confirmed. An example of this is to be seen near the CO-OP in Freshwater. An observer there will see regularly vehicles from Hooke Hill turning right into Freshwater cutting the corner and in doing so proceeding anti-clockwise around a quarter of the white painted circle. However at the Carisbrooke crossroads on a hill, drivers tend to choose to halt and stare expectantly at each other rather than obeying the 'right' rule, and as soon as the four roads each have a car waiting, well then nobody has priority, do they? This amusing cartoon illustrates the difficulties encountered initially.Thankfully this problem is sometimes resolved by an older driver employing that outdated courtesy of indicating to the driver of the would-be ascending vehicle that he should proceed.

Such 'Giving way' is another process not understood by many. Drivers here do not seem to understand that they ought not to overtake a parked vehicle in the face of an approaching car on the unobstructed part of the road. Nor do they understand that when they have so rudely impeded the progress of the oncoming car they should at least offer its driver a wave for his enforced courtesy in slowing. Indeed, and most strangely, you may notice that very often a driver who tucks in behind a parked car to allow correctly an approaching car a clear path is the one to give the wave of appreciation.

Newport is the proud owner of an elongated multistage 'roundabout' which generally works very well. But when it first came into operation it was much criticised as being unnecessary. But it was necessary, and one feels that the objections were more to do with the Island being dragged into the mainland ways of this century. A Newport ring-road system is most unlikely ever to be built, so how else was a major crossroads to be managed? The locals found the plethora of traffic lights both inexplicable and exceedingly bothersome and the lane changing required was a hair raising exercise for them too. They live in their innocence never having negotiated very much more hair-raising examples on the mainland. We, the enlightened, of course know that our salvation lies in merely looking only at the lights nearest to us at each stage of progress.

Now a few essential words about our country roads. These are, of course, the routes of the Victorian cart tracks somewhat optimistically covered in tarmac. Improving the foundations before doing so was seemingly in most cases largely considered unnecessary or just ignored. The result is that modern traffic has caused our roads to become bumpy and frequently potholed. Little money has been available to rectify the root cause of the problem so that most of it was used to make repairs by patching. The situation had become very bad but in mid 2009 some Government money had been obtained with more promised allowing a few proper repairs to be undertaken. However here in 2014 potholes still abound : a 'Pothole Hot Line' exists and understand that this, when used, is effective as then a reported particularly bad hole might be repaired within three months! However, bumpy and dangerous roads may serve to some extent to inhibit the rate of progress of even those who would consider themselves to be 'fast' drivers, so perhaps we should consider that our bad roads are in effect a boon? But be warned : only half of all claims to the Council for cars damaged by potholes ever succeed.

However, having said all that, serious improvements were started in September 2009. Now several significant stretches in the West Wight have been properly repaired and wherever you drive on the Island you will encounter short random sections of newly repaired road. More power to Island Roads elbows!

Our indigenous speed fiends complain endlessly about speed cameras : as far as I know we have but four of the fixed variety and they are not hidden, so it should be easy for you to avoid paying that particular voluntary tax.

In addition it must be said that speeding around our bendy lanes is not advisable for another very good reason : there are few paths provided for pedestrians and as you will discover, those daring individuals have an uncanny habit of being present at particularly blind bends on the narrowest of roads. We have a larger number than average of 'walkers' here as the Island is promoted as a walkers venue and indeed the local branch of the Ramblers Association has a membership exceeding seven hundred. Fortunately they rarely venture forth in full en masse and moreover they tend to roam in flocks in their preferred habitat of fields and downs, although of necessity they do have to cross or walk along short lengths of the roads. Indeed one Island fortnight in May each year is dedicated to their amusement and this attracts hordes more of their fraternity who undertake a variety of walks from 300 yards to 16 miles, with about eight of these taking place on each day. Therefore if you should happen to notice a large stationary be-rucksacked group hovering on the verge, they certainly will be not be there in anticipation of boarding a bus. It could very well be because they are hoping to cross the carriageway and the most sensible thing a driver could do would be to give them the chance to do so, even at the expense of incurring a few additional seconds of journey time, thus clearing the road of many vulnerable and squishy hazards. Any such driver would be rewarded with multiple smiles and waves of appreciation for his unexpected demonstration of such an old-fashioned courtesy.

Cyclists are also catered for and have special Cycling Festivals which you might do well to avoid because hundreds of them swish about in swarms in all directions and sometimes of course in the usual bum-in-the air, nose-to-the-tyre, get-out-of-my-way, posture of racing cyclists, seemingly oblivious to all other road traffic. At the end of August we get an influx of motorcyclists but fortunately they usually behave well and most do not regard this place as an ersatz Isle of Man although they do tend to roar about in droves, as do their more numerous scooter brethren who also tend to infest us in the same season.

Throughout the year very many motor coaches visit us and it is reported that as many as 22,000 single crossings were made by these last year on Wightlink ferries alone. The other day no less than six coaches were noticed parked at Wight Pearl. As is to be expected, the coaches travel to all the tourist hot-spots in turn, so any car-driving visitor will almost certainly end up at some time behind one of these slow moving vehicles. There are few overtaking opportunities and even fewer places for the coach driver to pull over, so any such car driver may well become a little impatient. However, without exception in the writer's experience the coach drivers proceed in a most careful and courteous manner and navigate our tricky roads with great skill. It is not them but their many passengers who demand the slow progress, the better for them to admire the many fine views. For the allieviation of your possibly fatal frustration no panacea can be suggested apart from falling back and admiring the view too! Otherwise your only resort would to be to stop or to count slowly to ten many times over.

A curiosity that will soon be spotted are areas of red tarmac across the road bearing the word 'Slow'. These appear to be positioned quite casually, at random and not necessarily at points of particular danger. Presumably some serious accident must have happened at each place in the past, but now the warnings themselves could be the cause of accidents, because as so many of them are sited in seemingly safe places, this may lead drivers to ignore them in their entirety.

Apart from our very short dual-carriageway the maximum speed anywhere on the Island is sixty miles per hour. In general, due to the state of the surface and the number of bends, one finds that fifty is the more likely maximum to be achieved. As repeater signs are rarely provided, care must be taken to notice the frequent changes of limits between forty and thirty which occur for no obvious reason. However, very often one's rate of progress will be determined by the many 'single speed' drivers we have here. Thirty five miles per hour is often their choice and regardless of the changing limits, that is the speed of their progress throughout their entire journey. The length of the queue behind does nothing to influence it, and this will be because they haven't noticed it, so there is no point in 'tailgating' them in your mainland way either. Even if they do notice a build up of traffic behind them there is little chance for them to 'pull over' as our roads are narrow and lay-bys few and very far between. We Islanders are used to it and allow extra time for every journey. We forgive the geriatric driver : he may well be taking the even more geriatric Aunty Joan to the hospital or perhaps both may be merely enjoying a therapeutic 'drive' for both to admire the scenery of their Island. Why should we curse them because of that? Indeed we applaud them, not abuse them, as in part our Island economy depends on our large numbers of elderly people such as these because the spending power of their private pensions is often greater than that of younger employed people and indeed this results in much permanent employment of those in the Service industries which continues throughout the year, long after you, the transient visitor, welcome though you are, have long departed our shores.

So beware! Despite this treatise being masked by humour, you may be assured that all the above points are valid, and you will find that driving here is somewhat different.

The new master plan involves our Council giving Island Roads seven million ponds annually. In return they undertake to eventually bring every centimetre of road and pedestriam footpath up to a high standard, and replace all our street lights with the LED variety. However in the meantime the potholes persist and each winter causes more surfaces to crumble, so if you should see a local driver swerving all over the road he is probably just trying to avoid an imminent hole.

Just one more point. Petrol costs more here. Also it's usually nine pence dearer at the smaller filling stations compared with our supermarkets.

You may now care to revisit my equally helpful geographical notes or much more likely perhaps you will wish to go home

Our most excellent weeky paper 'The County Press', is recommended as a very good read if you wish to get a feel for the peculiarities and insularity of this esoteric little land prior to your visit.

Text © 2006 D.C.Adams