Wednesday, January 30, 2008


The United State's 230 years of self-enforced separation from the United Kingdom has led to a certain amount of divergence in the area of measurements.

Pints and gallons are the most obvious ones. A UK (or imperial) gallon is 4.544 litres, a US wet gallon is 3.784 litres. This is because back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the gallon measure varied depending on what was being measured. A gallon of ale was a different size to a gallon of wine or to a gallon of grain. Eventually, people saw this was just silly and decided to use a single gallon measure for everything. This happened in the UK and in the US, but the US went with the wine gallon and the UK chose the ale gallon.

However there is a unit of measurement that has a more subtle difference. The mile. On the face of it the American and the British miles appear the same length, 1760 yards. Indeed if you were to walk or cycle a Yankee mile it would feel just the same as one from Blighty. However, once you start driving, US miles lengthen.

Say you wanted to drive 20 miles. In the UK, you would probably find that your journey was a combination of small twisty roads, fast, straight single-lane roads and dual carriageways. You would expect to be there about 20 minutes later, even allowing for doing the last couple of miles at 35mph because you're stuck behind a caravan.

In America, your 20 miles will take you 40 minutes. Three-quarters of the journey will be on divided highways, yet the speed limits are often 40 or 45, occasionally raising to the state maximum limit of 55mph. Granted, speeding seems normal with most traffic travelling between five and ten miles an hour above the limit. But there are also traffic lights every half-mile and stop signs which are more common than traffic lights.

Stop signs are like 'give way' signs were when you were 17 and your Mum was sitting next to you. You are meant to stop at the sign even if you can see there is no traffic coming from any direction. Often the stop sign is set back from the junction, so you need to stop, then move up to the junction and give way. In place of roundabouts (though they do exist, I have been around three) they tend to use either traffic lights or all-way stop signs where everyone has to stop then give way to whoever got there first.

It's strange that in a country that is usually so relaxed about personal safety, where no-one bats an eyelid if I let my four-year-old cling to the side of a shopping trolley in a supermarket - in Britain I would expect to receive a lecture about child abuse and the unnecessary strain I was inflicting upon the NHS - the roads are set up with the assumption that we're all children sitting on our Fathers' knees steering down the drive. Is it the litigative culture? Would the insurance companies throw up their hands and refuse to co-operate if the roads were designed for adults? I say start replacing all-way stops with mini-roundabouts and see what happens. Perhaps in ten years time everyone will be doing 90 on the free-ways.

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