Getting a crash course in left-lane driving
RAF MILDENHALL — Roundabouts, pelican crossings and maneuvering a vehicle on the left side of the road are some obstacles that can confuse Americans who are used to their way of driving.
When I first arrived in England last month, I was overwhelmed by the traffic. Perhaps it was the eight years of driving on the right side, or maybe it’s that the traffic signs in England are as easy to translate as Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Whatever the reason, I didn’t want to be another safety hazard. So, I decided to participate in a two-hour interactive driving course offered at no cost by the 100th Air Wing Safety Office.
The course, which is open to all newly assigned servicemembers and dependents, is provided three times every Friday near RAFs Mildenhall and Lakenheath. It allows participants to drive on local streets while receiving guidance from a British driving instructor.
Senior Airman Dennis Stanio, a fitness specialist with the 100th Services Squadron, and I had the opportunity to take the course in mid-January.
Before we could take the wheel we received a crash course (no pun intended) from a local driving instructor with 24 years of experience.
Mike Daniels, an instructor with the British company Accidon’t Inc., pointed out traffic features as he drove toward Mildenhall from the Smokehouse Inn outside of base.
Following a 20-minute drive through Mildenhall and surrounding towns, Stanio and I took turns driving the same route.
This was the first time that I drove on the left side, so I was hesitant. I felt like I was 15 years old with a learner’s permit again.
Stanio, a 23-year-old from New Haven, Conn., had a similar reaction behind the wheel.
“It’s kind of like starting all over again when you come to a country like this,” he said. “You have to realign yourself in the car as well as on the road.”
Daniels gave both of us the chance to go solo again for the last part of the course. This time, we drove along the A1101 carriageway, a dangerous stretch of road known for strong side winds and sloping shoulders.
A woman and three of her children were killed when their vehicle swerved and fell into a dike on the same road in 2003.
The instructor wanted us to drive this route in order to be prepared for the unexpected throughout England.
“I think it’s good to be aware of the situations here in the U.K.,” Daniels said.
Road accidents involving U.S. airmen have declined in the last couple of fiscal years, and the driver course — started in January 2005 — may have played a role in that reduction, according to Master Sgt. Rodney Whitaker, ground safety manager for the 100th Air Wing Safety Office.
In fiscal 2004, there were 36 major vehicle accidents involving American airmen, according to the safety office. That compares to six major accidents during fiscal 2005. During fiscal 2004, there were 156 minor accidents (mostly fender benders) reported, compared to 142 minor accidents in fiscal 2005, according to the safety office.
“People are now more aware of the roads, the rules and regulations by taking this course,” said Whitaker, of Rocky Mount, N.C.
There also has been a lot of good feedback from students who participated in the course, he said.
“I feel more confident now about driving than if I just set out on my own,” Stanio said after the course.
The driving courses on both bases average about 50 students per month. About 240 U.S. Air Force licenses are issued each month between the two bases, meaning 20 percent of newly licensed drivers take the extra driving course.
Anyone interested in taking the course can contact the RAF Mildenhall safety office at DSN 238-2140/2142 or the RAF Lakenheath safety office at DSN 226-5650/5651.