My roving and reporting recently took me to a board meeting from which I would need to drive 30 miles home after the sun had set. Nothing that worried me – I’ve often driven long distances of an evening back in England, why would something so universal as the night time be any different?
I never learn, do I? The small detail I failed to register is that America is a very, very big country with lots and lots and lots of road. Where England only has about a mile and a half of motorway and could afford to light every last inch of it with Olympic torches made of actual gold if it felt like it, the same process would require prohibitive tax dollars and an unthinkable amount of manpower over here.
A country this large also suffers much less from ambient light; this makes stargazing a joy, but doesn’t enhance the experience of night driving. As I hurtled home, desperately seeking the switch that turns the brights on in the vain hope of being able to see more than a foot ahead of the car and wondering how far I’d get before a curve in the road took me by surprise, I appreciated once again just how dark it gets over here.
The only towns within a 60-mile radius were the one I was coming from and the one I was travelling to. Neither are city-sized and you’d be forgiven for not noticing they were there, particularly at night. By contrast, you’re never far from a well lit city as you drive the UK’s roads and the ambient light seldom leaves you behind. Even when the moon is in hiding, you’d be hard pressed to find full darkness anywhere on the island.
Not to mention the sheer number of fellow drivers whose headlights shine along with yours. No matter the time of day, there are far more people on the roads than you see over here, as evidenced by the 15-mile tailbacks that can spring up out of nowhere. This occurs for no more complicated reason than that England is small, and English citizens are many.
We’ve also adorned our roads with these:
They don’t look very impressive during the day, but they’re terribly handy on a country lane at night. Cat’s eyes – so called because they emulate the reflective properties of a cat’s eye when you shine a light into it (but not the bit where the cat bites you on the nose for your insolence) – were invented just before World War II. They’re durable little buggers designed to sink into the road if you drive over them and they vary in colour to show you what bit of road you’re currently travelling.
The US equivalent, called Bott’s Dots, are apparently less durable, don’t sink into the road and aren’t a lot of use in areas where snow removal is a daily task. Wyoming would thus not be a candidate for dotting even if it wouldn’t require a billion or so of them to cover the mileage.
Ambient light, reflective eyeballs, street lights as far as the eye can see. All these things conspire to create a situation where driving on an English night is not much different to driving during an English day: you can still see where you’re aiming for and how many twists and turns you’ll be encountering to get there. If you’re an Englishwoman on the highways of Wyoming, on the other hand, you’d better hope you’ve been eating your carrots.