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English traffic jam: the perfect occasion for a spot of tea

The British stiff upper lip of the past could be attributed to stern nannies, a spartan boarding-school up-bringing, and going out with mad dogs in the tropical midday sun. Today's stiff upper lip is, I suspect, a product of a more contemporary phenomenon: the English traffic jam.

Nowhere in the world can there be traffic jams like England's. They can be miles long. I know. I've been in them. Canterbury 5 miles, the sign says. Half an hour later: Canterbury 4 miles.

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A traffic jam for the car's occupants is an occasion to finish off the crossword -- or, as I have witnessed, for a quick roadside tea break.

One reason, it seems, why the English join traffic jams is that they have worked so hard to participate in them. Passing your driving test here is one of the greatest and, if you fail, most enduring challenges in life. Here, they send ``Congratulations on passing your driving test'' cards.

Taking your driving test is an experience which unfortunately cannot be avoided, and which certainly is never forgotten.

Taking the British driver's test is an occupational hazard. Office workers who have driving tests go through all sorts of subterfuges not to let on that they are taking the test, because success is by no means assured.

The curious thing about British driving is that, once you have passed the driving test, nobody seems to care anymore after that. You can drive for life. Or almost. My British license issued last summer will not expire until May 16, 2009.

What's more, the British driver's license is an expression of honesty. The license comes without any photograph that could immediately alert the police in case it was stolen.

Restraints on British drivers -- like traffic policemen on fast motorways -- seem few and far between. All the more surprising since British drivers, when not snarled in traffic jams, hurtle along the motorways with the greatest of speeds.

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Poor unsuspecting American visitors who are accustomed to 55 mile-per-hour speed limits back home and who are arriving at London's Heathrow Airport should beware of British friends offering rides into London.

``Er, what is the speed limit?'' they ask with a nervous cough while clutching their seat belts.

``70 miles per hour,'' the driver will answer correctly. What the driver perhaps will not tell the passengers as cars flash past at lightning speed is that many British drivers have no qualms about topping 100 m.p.h. Even Britain's Minister of Transport Linda Chalker admitted that at 70 m.p.h. she feels like a snail on the motorways.

There are no signs, as there are in the US, advising motorists to ``Conserve your fuel'' by traveling slower. Such savings could be impressive, considering the British imperial gallon, which, although admittedly larger that the standard United States gallon, costs around 1.98, or $2.87.

Even when stopped for speeding, the English driver has been known to charm his way out of a fine. One driver who had been traveling well over the speed limit was hauled to the side of the road by a siren-blaring police motorcycle.

When told how fast he was going, the driver effected a look of considerable anguish. ``Good heavens, officer,'' he said, ``I'm obliged to you for telling me that. I had no idea I was traveling so irresponsibly. Without your timely intervention I couldn't start to think what the consequences might have been. I'm entirely in your debt.''

The police officer was so bowled over that he let the driver go scot free. It's just possible, of course, that the driver's punishment still lay ahead of him . . . in the form of a 7-mile-long English traffic jam.

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