Exception, Deviation and Delta

18 07 2015

My posts of late have been somewhat lightweight I fear. The longer, convoluted – and hopefully at least a little entertaining – essays/rants seem to have been absent. To feel really “in the mood“, my life needs to have brought three different thoughts or events into some kind of union in my mind. A bit like “crossing the streams” in Ghostbusters. OK – so that risked ending the universe, and I don’t think my writing style has quite hit that much of a low yet, but you get the idea – three concepts that are better when combined than in separate doses.

Of course, that’s only my own thought and you might disagree entirely, which is cool by me too.

My first thought was about language. English specifically. Regulars might recall my story of being told in grammar school that English was my second language (I’m from Yorkshire) and that I’d be lucky to pass my English ‘O’ Level. I count this as the point at which I began my current love affair with English (and why I actually achieved a B grade). Particularly its subtleties, vagaries and history. Double entendres, puns and the like are “cheap jokes” to be sure, but their very existence is only possible because of the inherent complexity and ever-changing content of the language. The ability to use a word in multiple senses; that multiple words can look or sound the same; the absorption of foreign words – either with their original meaning or occasionally a slightly different one – these bypasses and detours are all rich fodder for the quick witted and agile of tongue.

The gamut runs from the likes of Shakespeare – not averse to making up his own words where the current lexicon didn’t suffice – through to Les Dawson, who channelled Sheridan’s Mrs Malaprop (1775) for cheap humour in the 1970s. A case in point, “malapropism” itself is now firmly ensconced in the OED to mean the act so vividly portrayed by the eponymous character. It means – if you didn’t already know; in fact it still means, even if you did already know – the act of incorrectly using a word that sounds similar to the correct word, usually to humorous, if accidental effect. Examples here, but a taster: “A rolling stone gathers no moths.”

OK, so I’m already a little off course. The specific foible of English I wanted to discuss was its irregularity; its embracing of exceptions. I had the undoubted advantage of being born in an English-speaking country and never therefore having to learn it formally. The advantage being I have a lifetime of experience speaking/hearing/reading it “authentically”; the disadvantage being that I am completely oblivious to its massive number of irregularities until someone points them out.

The result of the irregularities and exceptions is that a person who learns English as a second language tends to make subtle errors because they’ve made the entirely reasonable assumption that some grammatical rule or other would be followed when in fact this turns out to be one of the large number of exceptions. Even the “rule” taught at school that “i comes before e except after c” is actually statistically incorrect. The rule actually holds only for the more frequently used ie/ei words. If you were to take the whole dictionary, i tends to come after e even in the absence of c. Weird and caffeine being my favourite examples.

Though far from unique in this matter (think French), English even makes the basic “to be” a challenge to the new-comer. Given “I am” how could a novice ever predict “you are”; “he is”? Despite the continued variety of French’s plural conjugations of “nous sommes; vous êtes; ils sont”, it’s as if the originator of English got bored with the variety of the singular and went for a wholesale “are” for the plurals “we”, “you”, “they”. This efficiency does tend to hold in a lot of cases – especially in the past tense. For example, given “I ran”, its convenient to know that you, he, we, you (plural) and they all also ran. But here we’ve already illustrated another anomaly to “the rules”.

It’s common, though by no means certain that you can change a present verb, say “to hike” from present to past by adding “-ed” (or just “-d” if there’s already an e at the end). So I hike today and by tomorrow I can say I hiked. Though you hike and will have also hiked, unfortunately he hikes though by tomorrow will also join us by having hiked. It’s a minefield. Add the thought now that though I presently run I would be roundly (another ambiguous word) corrected if I claimed tomorrow that I had runned, and you will see the vast hill faced by late-comers to the Queen’s tongue (yet another phrase that defies trivial explanation).

The source of these many-fold exceptions interests me, and I suspect it is tied to the very real fluidity of English as compared to some other languages (French, yes I’m looking at you chérie). Similar exceptions occur with plurals. By and large, it’s safe to assume that adding an -s will move the discussion from the singular to the plural. Occasionally there’s an additional e to worry about like with churches (always bothersome even in the singular) but by and large you’re safe. Dogs, cats, sheep, all would… oh, wait! Yup, there are definitely exceptions. Fish, deer, sheep all exist Schrödinger-like in one of two potential states. They might be alone, or they might be with company… we have to see the rest of the context to deduce which. Open the box (like church, in need of an e), as it were.

F’s are awkward too. Any leaf, thief, hoof, dwarf needs to group themselves into leaves, thieves, hooves and dwarves, though here too there are exceptions to this exception. Though a roof used to multiply into rooves it is now very rare, and roofs has become the norm (thanks America!). And in Toronto, there is a team of Leafs. Allegedly. (Like England’s World Cup win in 1966, their 1967 Stanley Cup win seems like yesterday to some).

So – if you were born into an English-speaking home, have a tad more respect for those you come across that have learnt (not learned) it in later life. They may make a few errors along the way, but it’s quite an undertaking to have gotten so far. A mouse becomes mice, but a house is content with the predictable houses. A goose becomes geese but a moose is proud and stays as moose even in company. It must raise the question whether in fact there really are any rules in English. Perhaps the entire language is a set of exceptions to its mother – German!

Exceptions and deviations in language can lead to frustrations or amusement for sure. Even if you’re speaking it entirely correctly. A kids’ scooter is being advertised at the moment. It goes by the name of Y-Fliker. Aw, come on… think about it… 🙂

Similar rule exceptions on the road though can lead to death or injury. Especially in countries with a high percentage of immigrants. Places like Canada where a relatively high percentage of drivers originally learnt in another country, and managed to gain a license because they drove no worse than the competing local 16 year olds. By and large, the rules of the road are relatively consistent internationally. Darwin tends to quickly weed out those who struggle to fit the accepted norms. Personally I learnt in the UK and drove extensively in Europe without incident – despite several countries seeming to prefer to drive on the wrong side of the road :). Driving in BC is largely familiar and I now attempt to enter my car through the passenger door no more than once or twice a year. But there are frustrations. Occasions where the local rules of the road are different to UK and Europe. Occasions too where those rules are downright dangerous. Other occasions where the disregard of those rules can easily lead to death of the innocent as well as the dip-stick breaking them.

I have two pet hates really. The BC version of the roundabout and the HOV/bus lane.

In North America there is a tendency to take a vast area of undeveloped land, draw out some neat plans on graph paper, then build an entire town/city. This leads to a largely neat and orderly grid system, as copied by Milton Keynes. These intersections (for that is how they are called) are typically controlled by traffic lights. Since green for go, red for stop would be far too conventional, here we have an exception that if you are at a red light and wanting to turn right, and there is no traffic coming from the left, you may do so. You don’t have to – you can wait for the green light. Just don’t try waiting if there’s a car behind you… you’ll be audibly abused, despite being well within your rights. There’s another proviso – that of waiting for any pedestrians to cross before you turn right on red – but my experience tells me that this part of the rule is deemed optional, especially in certain districts of Richmond, where I work and travel on foot. You see – this is where the exception starts to break down. North America, based on these intersections, has made every one of them a pedestrian “cross-walk”, meaning cars are supposed to give way to pedestrians as well as looking out for on-coming cars when turning left, and all the usual car-related dangers.

At light-controlled intersections it’s managed quite well, as the lights also include pedestrian go/don’t go signals. Like drivers though, there are pedestrians that ignore these and think they know best. By and large if the cars have a green light, then parallel travelling pedestrians also have “a white man”. Trouble is, there can be left-turn filter lights which allow the cars to go… but not the pedestrians. More exceptions. If you are driving and turning left, and get a green light, you have to give way to any pedestrians crossing on your left. If however you got a green filter arrow… the pedestrians are not supposed to be there. Darwin may well intervene if they choose to cross anyway.

So, by and large this all works reasonably well. Smaller intersections though don’t warrant the expense of traffic lights. These employ something known as a 4-way stop. In principle, this is a great idea. On approaching the intersection, you are obliged to stop. Even if you’re the only car on the road. You may then proceed, in the order that you and other cars arrived at the stop. Again, this works well most of the time. There is even a rule for the rare occasion that 2 cars arrive at exactly the same time – the one on the right gets priority. So far so good.

But then we get the case where the two cars arrive opposite each other. And the case when all 4 cars arrive together. And the case where the first car to arrive has to give way to a pedestrian who is crossing. All these (and other) cases lead to frustrations, missed turns and the potential for mayhem. In an attempt to keep things moving more smoothly, BC has started to introduce roundabouts. The trouble is… there is little information on how to use them properly. My son – just learning to drive – was taught that it was not necessary in any circumstance to signal on entry or exit from the “turning circle”. I was gob-smacked! Almost as much as when I see people stopping on entry and treating it like a 4-way stop with an inconvenient mound in the middle. But (inevitably) it gets better… because this doesn’t yet make life interesting enough, BC has deemed it sensible to add cross-walks to the roundabouts. Yup, so imagine…

You approach the roundabout, intending to take the second exit – straight on.

You don’t signal because you’re going straight on.

You look to your left (we’re in Canada – people drive the other way) as you approach.

There’s nothing coming, so you enter the roundabout at cruising speed.

As you pass the first exit, you begin to signal right to leave the roundabout at the second, completely confusing the guy behind who never signals anyway.

But look… there’s a pedestrian crossing the road on a cross-walk  right at the exit of the roundabout, and you are obliged to stop (still on the roundabout) whilst they dawdle over the road texting their friends.

In doing so, you’ve possibly been rear-ended by the guy behind, and at the very least caused the roundabout to come to a grinding halt with one or more shunts as cars neglected to continue on their anticipated trajectories into, on, or off the roundabout. A delta not anticipated by the car behind them, not able to see the pedestrian you’ve reacted to.

Anyone wanting a more objective view of how to use roundabouts (and able to mentally swap left/right) could do worse than check out the UK government’s “The Highway Code” rules 184-190. Specifically regarding signalling.

gov.uk: The Highway Code rule 185

You’ll notice I hope the complete lack of pedestrian crossings anywhere near the roundabout!

OK so my spleen, you’ll be glad to hear, is almost vented now. The last rule of traffic exceptions I want to cover is the High Occupancy Vehicle and/or Bus Lane. Due to the laughingly small population densities in BC compared to say… well, anywhere really… the highway congestion here is negligible and even then, very short-lived. To minimise it though, we have HOV lanes on the highways. These are for the sole use of motorcycles and vehicles with more than just the driver. They’re usually for 2+, but occasionally can be 3+. Buses and taxis and people car-pooling can therefore get a bit of a head start should the highway be busy at rush-hour. The idea is to encourage ride-sharing and to minimise pollution when possible. This is North America though… land of the SUV-that-never-leaves-tarmac. The Lower Mainland more so. That SUV is likely to be white and have a BMW, Lexus or Infiniti logo. So in principle at least, I’m fine with the HOV concept – it makes sense for those willing to share the vehicle to get a bit of a bye, should there be a traffic jam. The issue is in the implementation…

Let’s go back to the basics of entering the motorway.

In the UK/Europe when entering a highway via the slip-road, the order of events is thus (rule 259 if you’re that interested):

You should:

  • give priority to traffic already on the motorway
  • check the traffic on the motorway and match your speed to fit safely into the traffic flow in the left-hand lane
  • not cross solid white lines that separate lanes or use the hard shoulder
  • stay on the slip road if it continues as an extra lane on the motorway
  • remain in the left-hand lane long enough to adjust to the speed of traffic before considering overtaking.

Here in BC though, the emphasis is a little different:

The entrance consists of an entrance ramp, an acceleration lane and a merging area. Some freeway entrances have ramp meters — a traffic light that controls traffic entering the freeway by
restricting the number of vehicles that may proceed along the entrance ramp

  • While you’re on the entrance ramp, scan the freeway traffic for a safe gap.
  • The acceleration lane is divided from the rest of the roadway by a solid white line. Use this lane to match your speed to the speed of traffic on the freeway.
  • The merging area is divided from the freeway by a broken white line. Use this area to find a safe gap to merge with freeway traffic. Be aware that cycling is permitted on some freeways, so be careful not to cut in front of a cyclist.

It’s the same general scheme… but lacks the first vital point: the cars hurtling down the motorway already have right of way! Here we try and be polite and so add a section for those already on the highway:

Strategies: freeway courtesy
When you are driving in the right lane of a freeway, other drivers may try to merge from an entrance lane. It’s not always easy for them to find a safe gap. Use these pointers to help them merge safely:

  • pull over into the left lane (if it’s safe) to give them room to merge onto the freeway
  • adjust your speed to allow a large enough gap for them to move safely into.

And therein lies the dilemma…

Things have evolved to the stage where those entering the motorway/highway/freeway assume that the main body of traffic will just magically part to their Moses-like appearance and a gap will make itself known at the requisite time. It is inherently assumed that the newcomer has right of way. People accelerate down the slip-road and simply expect the current traffic to make way. Occasionally it does not, given the number of foreign-trained drivers. Police and ambulance subsequently attend.

OK, so we have the general picture now. Now, lets add in those HOV lanes. These are a “special” lane, often on the far right of the highway between the “slow lane” and the hard shoulder. For many kilometres of the highway, this is an uneventful place for it to be. But when one of these slip-roads is entering the picture, it gets quite interesting. You see, the new visitor to the motorway has to cross over the HOV lane in order to get to the slow lane of the motorway. At rush-hour, people in the HOV lane don’t like to give up their advantage. Police and ambulance again.

Then there’s the exception to the exception… some HOV lanes are actually bus lanes. They use the same diamond symbol on the road, but are clearly marked with overhead signs as Bus Lane. Otherwise they act basically the same. They have one safety advantage though, when crossing a slip-road. Because they only have large lumbering buses in them, they can be fitted with sensors to alert cars on the slip-road that a bus is approaching the end of the slip-road and perhaps the driver might like to take that into account in his accelerating/praying strategy for entering the flow of traffic. By and large this is very successful… except when those rush-hour (usually SUV) drivers want to sneak past all the traffic and pretend to be a bus. Perhaps their reading skills don’t stretch to “Bus Lane” and the familiar diamond logo is indeed the same as the normal HOV symbol, so perhaps there’s a flicker of an excuse…. but not really. Despite their self-delusion, they are not large enough to trigger the sensor and so arrive unannounced to the confluence of vehicles who are themselves happy in the non-blinking warning assurance that no bus is fast approaching. Police and ambulances attend.

And so, exhausted and empty spleened, I come to the final thread of today’s rant. When BC built a wider highway to Deltaport to cater for more trucks and higher volume goods to and from the port, it opted instead of a “simple” roundabout to join the tangential routes, for a spaghetti system of long additional lanes and parallel roads. This confuses most people – locals and visitors alike. The HOV lane leaves the highway, crosses a junction and rejoins. It is crossed by trucks and cars trying to gain access to off-ramps. It is, in short, a nightmare. Again though, if one cares to look, it is in fact clearly marked as an HOV lane. There is a large sign near its beginning that warns travellers of the up-coming junction 26. The road markings do look similar to the exit road markings at the junction… but the junction is not yet here. Inevitably then trucks and single occupancy vehicles often blithely sit in the HOV lane (despite the other HOV lane signage) assuming they’re just in a  v-e-r-y  long approach lane for junction 26. No doubt they have an “oops” moment when the sign for the junction actually arrives and the usual exit lane appears. Some though I suspect have a “I got away with it again” moment instead. You see, to travel in the HOV lane sans passenger is an offence – fine-worthy and points-deductible.

Imagine then my annoyance to sit for many kilometres the other day (with a passenger) in the HOV lane behind a car with no passenger. At the appropriate junction, the driver left the HOV to turn south towards Ladner. As we drew alongside for the lights to change I was appalled to note it was a City of Delta corporation car. Not only was this a local with no excuse for not knowing it was an HOV lane… they worked for the city! Spitting feathers by the time I got to work, I wrote a terse email to the City of Delta suggesting that perhaps they remind their employees of the rules of the road and that when driving a corporation vehicle they should be setting a good example.

And here, the wind was completely removed from my sails.

The city replied within the hour with assurances that the perpetrator had been identified and was most sincerely apologetic for her “lapse of attention”. (It is entirely coincidental the driver was female. And blonde.) Furthermore she would endeavour to be more courteous to other road users and more careful to follow the rules of the road in future. I was gob-smacked (again). I didn’t expect any response at all, but the City of Delta seemed to take very seriously the case when their employees (in their liveried vehicles) break the law. At least when they got found out! Kudos for that at least…

And so, dear reader, I am at an end. I congratulate you for reaching the end with me. It was little more than a lengthy rant, and I am humble enough to know and accept that I have at least as many faults and weaknesses as those I’ve documented above. But I feel a lot lighter now. Bile is such a dense humour, don’t you think?

Until next time…




2 responses

18 08 2015
David A Lockwood

Here in Oman; roundabouts with lights – the road equivalent of an oxymoron I think.
Great read.

18 08 2015
Quieter Elephant

Thanks for investing the time! Roundabouts with lights seemed common back in Blighty when I visited last. MK, Brum, Bradford… Still have only seen one-per-light highway slip road control in the U.S. Though. That really does seem weird.

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