A YANKEE LOOK AT ENGLISH DRIVING by Joel M. Vance. with photos by Annette Lucido

You can take the boy out of Missouri. Just don't make him drive on the wrong side of the road.

There's an old saying that if everything seems to be coming your way, you're in the wrong lane. Or in England...

All Americans know that in England you drive on the left side of the road, which is the wrong side of the road for us. We all know it...but like knowing how to hit a baseball and connecting with a Major League fastball, the theory and the actuality are light years apart.

Coupled with that problem is the obsession of the English driver with speed. I once rode with a Mexican taxi driver who skirted a traffic jam by taking to the sidewalk. But he did it at a crawl. The average English motorist would have done the same, only at 70 miles per hour.

English drivers adopt what I call the PT Boat approach to driving, a slash-and-run assault operating on the theory that a moving target is hard to hit and the faster it is moving, the safer it is.

It is no surprise that "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," the quintessential story of personality transformation, was written by an Englishman, Robert Louis Stevenson, for the story perfectly reflects the personality of the English motorist. Clive or Colin or Alice or Bronwen Milquetoast becomes Bobby Unser the moment he or she lets in the clutch.

A Welch pub owner apologized to me for not having an auto to chauffeur my wife and I. He had blown his engine at 140 miles per hour, making a routine run home the night before.

Later, I rode with an Englishman who drove one-handed while gesticulating at the rapidly passing scenery. We were doing an even 100 miles per hour. I cowered in the back seat.

Most English roads are hard-surfaced, even the one-car-wide country lanes, and one is not comforted by the sight of long streaks of rubber laid down by someone (probably from New Jersey or North Dakota).

Driving fast, though, is only one part of English automotive angst. The British motorist manages to couple excessive speed with incredible recklessness. Drivers do things that make the chase in "The French Connection" look like a Sunday outing with the kids.

I first thought that perhaps maniac driving is the Britisher's way of venting hostility, but I never saw any driver, no matter the provocation, become angry.

American driving, even at 55 miles per hour, is scabbed by rude language and vulgar gestures. Bluff another Yank at an intersection or pass him dangerously, and he takes it personally. You'll hear keen speculation on your pedigree.

The Britisher shrugs philosophically if he even notices. On one ride, my host/driver was drifting along at 70 on a narrow country road (there is no other kind), with many blind curves, when a motorcyclist began to pass. Predictably, as he drew even with us, a car popped around the bend ahead, undoubtedly also traveling at 70. I braced myself for an awful bloodletting, but no one even slowed. The two cars eased to the road edge (there were rock walls on both sides) and the motorcyclist erupted through the tiny opening in the middle.

"He must have a suicide complex," I commented to the driver, who pondered as if the thought never had occurred to him. And it probably hadn't.

To understand British street systems, you need to know that, like Boston's in the USA, they were laid out in days when everything was horse-drawn. Even today, beer arrives this way.

Photos: Annette Lucido

There is no shoulder on any English road. Every verge is guarded by a curb, a tree, a hedge or, most of the time, a rock wall. You don't take to the ditch in a Celtic crisis--you hit something. The occasional scatter of dislodged rocks testifies that an American had caromed past.

In the movie, "National Lampoon's European Vacation," Chevy Chase and family hop in a rental car at Heathrow Airport and there is a bit of comic byplay as Chase maintains someone stole the steering wheel (it is on the right, of course).

He then pulls into his accustomed right lane and has a head-on collision.

I saw the movie shortly before we left to fly into Heathrow Airport to pick up a rental car. "Not me, boy, you won't catch me making those stupid slapstick mistakes," I crowed. I then jumped in the left-hand seat of my rental...and crawled back out, shamefaced, while the rental clerk politely suppressed a smirk.

"We can always tell the Americans," a Britisher told me. "They're the ones that are always walkin' around the car tryin' to find the driver's side."

I very nearly unhorsed a fellow in a little town. He was riding a horse down a cobbled street (the streets, constructed about 1530, are even narrower than the roads) and I allowed him the space I would have allowed him in Missouri--except that the bulk of the car hung out on my left, not my right, and I missed de-stirruping him by about a half-inch.

An American can't be an instinctive driver in Great Britain because his lifelong training leads him to do exactly the wrong thing. There is a lorry driver somewhere in a pub tonight soaking up his second pint and regaling his mates with the tale of the American who tried to fit a Ford up his bonnet.

My mind shut down momentarily in a small Welch town and I drove into the wrong lane and confronted the lorry whose driver stopped instantly and patiently waited for me to quit trembling and back into the proper lane.

A combination of nervous fatigue and a roundabout caused this near-accident. The roundabout bears explanation...but it is difficult to do it justice in a family publication.

Train out, and sample new spots, like Winsor, from a double decked bus. Try to avoid sharing Sunday rides with the survivors of a Saturday night -- "we lost the game, but won the party" -- Rugby Romp! Photos: Annette Lucid

The British have almost no American- style intersections, forthright junctions with stops or yields. Instead, they have roundabouts.

The roundabout is the kind of intersection you find in Hell. Imagine a wheel, with the roundabout being the hub and the spokes being the many roads that enter this hub. There's almost never less than four and usually more than that, feeding in at odd angles.

There are no stops, nor "give ways" (the English equivalent of "yield"). The rule is that if you can get into the roundabout, it's yours. A roundabout is the Indianapolis Speedway reduced to a hundred yards or so.

You're supposed to circle the thing until you find the exit road you want, then fly off into it, like an electron from a particularly unstable nuclear reaction. The theory is simple and the English feel the roundabout controls the flow of traffic more efficiently than stop-and-go intersections.

Even though Britain's traffic laws apparently were written by Rodney Dangerfield, there should be one requiring a vehicle with an American driver to display a prominent sign: "Caution: Terrified Yank" like the "student driver" signs on high school driver's education cars.

At the end of 10 days of English driving, we tottered onto a jet which, thank God, flew on the right side of the sky, and six hours later landed at Kennedy Airport where we were greeted by a New York City cabbie every bit as jolly as a nest of adders. He watched me struggle, sweating and wheezing, with our heavy luggage, impatiently tapping his foot and muttering in an incomprehensible foreign language (lower Bronx).

Bumper to bumper we crept toward the distant towers of Manhattan while the cabbie muttered maledictions and rode his brakes as if he were stomping out a grass fire. Once, he managed to accelerate to 60 miles per hour. After 10 days at warp speed, it was like traveling in an ox cart.

We reveled in it and I over tipped him so bountifully that he upgraded his normal dour expression to a glower. It was good to be home.