Kate Roff hits a few bumps with road rules while driving overseas.
The traffic light laws at intersections in the US remind me a lot of a line from the movie Pirates of the Caribbean (don't pretend you didn't see it) where Geoffrey Rush gets out of a technical regulation by claiming, "It's more of a guideline than an actual rule".
You see, though most countries uniformly recognise a red light as a solid indication to stop, in the midwestern states of Northern America they are somewhat flexible. A red does indeed mean stop, but there are exceptions to the rule. If you are turning right (remember, that would be the equivalent of our NZ left), then you are allowed to stop, look, and then go. Also, if you are turning left on to a one-way road and have a red light, you are permitted to stop and then proceed. Particularly unhelpful for international drivers is the use of flashing red lights, which means the traffic light in question is sometimes used but at the moment it too has been relegated to the role of a stop sign. It goes against most drivers' instincts and usually leaves me trying to mentally run through an entire list of sub-clauses from drivers-ed books when I approach intersections.
Confusing traffic laws are not, obviously, limited to the Land of the Free. Aside from the left-right switch most drivers have to make on their trip abroad, there are other road customs that are more culturally-based. Avoiding collisions with weaving motorbikes in Thailand, dodging wayward sacred cattle in India, and moving off the road for faster motorists to pass you in South Africa are all par for the course for seasoned drivers, but confronting for newcomers. During one ludicrous moment in Florence, it became clear to me that despite the installation of a roundabout designed to ease the traffic flow at a congested intersection, no one had any intention of giving way — resulting in an almost comical array of cars squeezed bumper-to-bumper in a chaotic circle that took a full hour to untangle. Another stand-off I came across was on a one-way bridge in Costa Rica, where two vehicles had attempted to cross at the same time. The drivers met in the middle and each stubbornly refused to reverse, while traffic behind them on both sides backed up. When one of them finally agreed to double back it took forever to convince everyone behind him that they had to do the same.
Even more concerning are some of the laws that can ping you while driving in other countries. You can technically be fined for running out of fuel on the autobahn in Germany, having any blood alcohol level above zero in Brazil, splashing a pedestrian as you drive through puddles in Japan, and in Manila, there's one day a week when you cannot drive your car, determined by the last digit of your licence plate. That's right, if your numberplate ends in a 2 you're not supposed to drive on Mondays.
I have, however, encountered one silver-lining moment when driving overseas. I incurred a parking fine in Edinburgh after I illegally parked to duck into my hotel (ironically to ask where to park the hire car).
When the fine was dutifully passed on by the rental company I wrote to the Scottish authorities to explain the situation. The letter I received in reply essentially implied that they had no way of enforcing the fine, and could I kindly stop bothering them about it? It's not something I recommend, as it could have easily gone the other way, but I did walk away from that one feeling like I'd had at least one win on the international road scene.