Around the bend


Backtalk, Bill Good, England, on-board navigation, global navigating systems, roundabouts, travel I like to think I’m up for a new adventure from time to time, but I’m not embarrassed to seek out a bit of technology to help along the way.
It’s been more than 10 years since I tried driving on the “wrong” side of the road, and I’d almost forgotten what an adventure it could be just shifting gears with your left hand.

My wife and I went to England to visit our daughter, who liked London so much the first time we took her that she’s taken to living there. We had a visit in London, then took our rented car into the English countryside. We toured the Cotswolds, ventured up to Birmingham and then drove back to London.

Along the way, I discovered satellite navigation. I’ve heard of various global navigating systems for a few years, but I’d never experienced one myself. From the moment we picked up our car, a Vauxhall Vectra, I was in awe. My wife programmed a destination into the sat-nav computer on the dash and suddenly a calm voice sounded in the car: “Follow the roadway for three kilometres and make a left-hand turn.”

I did as directed, and then heard “continue on this route for four hundred metres and turn right.” Bloody amazing! We dubbed the voice “M,” as in 007’s boss, and followed her directions. We were navigating through the British countryside and M would suddenly say, “in three kilometres when you enter the roundabout take the second exit.”

If you’ve ever experienced roundabouts, you know the feeling of being dropped into a blender and subsequently shot out. Knowing which exit to take without having to search for signs is a lifesaver. Going into a town such as Stratford-upon-Avon, you could enter a car park or park and ride into the system, and it would deliver you right to a place to park the car. From time to time a road was closed, or a building had sprung up where none existed before and you couldn’t follow the directions, but M was very understanding and would quickly determine where you were and reprogram the route.

This technology could save marriages. It completely takes the backseat driver, and critic, out of the equation. It means the driver can concentrate on driving, and not be trying to read a road map and finding strange street names while driving an unfamiliar vehicle on the other side of the road. It doesn’t take away the fear that strikes whenever you turn into a narrow street and see cars parked every which way, making you think you’ve just turned the wrong way onto a one-way street, when in fact everyone’s just parked facing you. The road is already far too narrow for two cars to meet and pass anyway, but nothing really prepares you for that.

Whether it was a village pub in the Cotswolds or a precise hotel or shop address in London or Birmingham, M seemed to know exactly how to deliver us there. For example, she would instruct us to “follow the motorway for three more kilometres, and take the next exit.” Once I did as I was told I’d hear M say, “You’ve arrived.” Believe me, when you’re on a country road in pitch black this comes as a great relief.

She even knew when we were going to encounter extreme traffic jams. On the way to Heathrow Airport she worked tirelessly to get us through the worst traffic I’ve ever driven through. She’d say, “In five kilometres there is severe traffic congestion” and the system would try to find a new route.

We constantly hear about the fabulous tube system in London, the trains and the remarkable public transit options, but I can report that despite all that, it still took us three hours to get from our bed and breakfast in Fintry Court to Heathrow, a drive of 30 kilometres. Without M, though, I swear I’d still be going around and around one of those roundabouts, or traffic circles as we call them here. Having driven in London and in unfamiliar countryside, I’ll never again rent a car without satellite navigation, and I wouldn’t hesitate to drive in New York, or Chicago or L.A.

With a little help from M.