THE JOYS OF DRIVING IN CANADA (Part 1) by S. Rolf-Dickinson

Not long after taking my Advanced Driving Test in Amersham last year, I found myself relocated to Markham (just north of Toronto, Canada) for a two year work contract. It has been a great experience so far, and I wanted to share a little of my driving impressions, now that I have been here almost a year. I have driven in both the US and Canada previously, but only for vacations or short business trips. Living here has given me a very different perspective.

The purchase of both cars and fuel here in Canada is cheaper than in the UK. Most vehicles come from the US or the Far East, with BMW and Volvo about the only European brands I've seen. We are currently paying about $1.25 / litre for fuel, which is about 70p / litre. However, as non-Canadians, we were completely stung by the price of car insurance. With a completely clean driving record, I am paying $1800 per year (about 1000)!! You might be forgiven for thinking I must be driving a Lamborghini, but no, it is a Hyundai i30!

The major highways here are called the 400 series, and are the equivalent of motorways. The biggest and "best" of them all is the 401. This is a broadly east-west highway, some 500 or so miles in length, and the section that runs to the north of Toronto has the dubious honour of being the busiest highway in North America. In this area it has express lanes (which bypass four or five junctions at a time) and collector lanes (which allow access on and off at every intersection); three or four of each in each direction. For the first two weeks of our time in Canada we stayed with my cousins in Burlington (to the west of Toronto), and drove back and forth to Markham on this beast on a daily basis. Nominally, lane discipline is supposed to be the same as in the UK, but the reality is that drivers weave about from lane to lane to try and gain some advantage. The speed limit on all 400 series roads is 100km/hr (approx. 62 mph), but again, reality is that 120km/hr or more is the norm.

Once we had purchased our own car, we were able to apply for a transponder to use the 407 Express Toll Route (ETR). The 407 was the first electronically operated toll highway in the world, and has no toll booths. The dues are billed via automatic number plate recognition, and the transponder (which is vehicle specific). Again, this is a broadly east-west highway, and is the heavenly alternative to the dreaded 401. Being a toll road, it is much less busy, but it's not cheap to use. Transponder rental is $21.50 per year, and charges are up to 30 cents per kilometre for light vehicles, with various bandings for time of day, and certain minimum charges.

In terms of road safety, the single most terrifying thing I see and experience is tailgating, especially on these major highways. I think the mantra here is 'Only a fool breaks the two millisecond rule'. We are bound by law to drive with daytime running lights, and when someone is so close behind you that you can't see their lights, it really is scary. I'm amazed I don't see more accidents.

One thing I've purchased and been glad of are those little blind spot mirrors. I know the purists amongst you will say that if my wing mirrors were properly adjusted I wouldn't need them, but being able to see what shenanigans is going on behind me two or more lanes out has been invaluable!

Driving on the more local roads is not quite so terrifying, although the tailgaters are never far away. Virtually all roads are dual carriageway, with a speed limit of either 60 or 70km/hours (approx. 37 or 43 mph), so at least those wanting to break the speed limit can get past me without issue. We have the usual North American thing of being allowed to turn right through a red light, which I have to say I hate. However, you're not supposed to turn when the opposing traffic wanting to turn left into the same road has a green filter arrow (but not many people seem to know or care). With the green light, if you're turning you have to give way to pedestrians crossing, as you would in the UK. The pedestrians have a count-down signal, and this usually matches when the traffic lights are going to change. When the pedestrian countdown reaches zero, the traffic lights go to amber. I find this really useful in planning my approach to the junction. However, the amber phase of the traffic lights is about 5 seconds, but instead of stopping, many drivers try and get through before they go to red. For this reason at many of the major intersections there are cameras to catch drivers passing the lights at red.

The best thing I have bought since I've been here was winter tyres for the car. The last winter was the harshest for about 20 years, so it really threw us in at the deep end. Canada is very well organised with its ploughing and gritting, but even so, with temperatures down to -30 degrees C, snowfall every few days, not to mention the odd ice storm, the security I've felt with the winter tyres was unbeatable.

There is certainly not the abundance of speed cameras here that there are in the UK, but the police do seem to be trying to clamp down on speeding a bit more. On the residential streets the limit is generally 40km/hour (approx. 25 mph), and this seems to be better observed than the other roads. Interestingly, road-rage seems pretty much non-existent here, and if you hoot someone for carving you up, you will most likely get a waved apology. Drivers here are just like those in the UK for not adjusting to weather conditions, but for me the tailgating has been the biggest difference compared with the UK.

In order to help us adjust to driving here, and to try and avoid any insurance claims, we have done an Advanced Driving Course. It was very different in style to the IAM course, and I'll tell you about it next time!


Driving in Canada Part 2