The Art of the Passing Place

When you head north in Scotland, into the wide area usually labelled Highlands and Islands on maps, you will find not only amazing scenery, but also, as you go to more remote areas, more single lane roads.

Driving on these roads is difficult. As a driver you have a lot of things to balance. You have to be ready for unexpected twists and turns; be prepared to brake suddenly if a sheep wanders out in front of you; steer around potholes which can be numerous and almost like a deliberate obstacle course; and divide your vision time between looking at the road and looking around awestruck at often quite incredible scenery.

And on these challenging remote roads, you will find the passing places.

When two cars approach each other on a single lane road, one of the cars must make way for the other by swinging into a passing place. There doesn’t seem to be a rule as to who makes way for whom, just a practical decision by whoever is the closest.

The passing place makes enough room for both cars to pass each other, and then comes the nicest part: both drivers wave at each other in recognition of a difficulty jointly negotiated.

Driving is normally such a solitary business; your only interaction with other drivers is usually aggressive – to honk your horn or shout or gesture at someone who done you wrong.

But driving on these small roads and weaving in and out of the passing places, you start to feel a sense of companionship with your fellow drivers. The little four fingered waves from a hand still holding the steering wheel are a courtesy, an acknowledgement, a companionable gesture.

When on occasion a driver passes me without a wave I find myself making a Marge Simpson-esque “Hrmph” at the back of my throat. How rude, I think. But then the next driver waves at me and I feel better.

I think I will try to take passing place behaviour with me back to the real world after this trip. In fact I think we should all practice passing place behaviour: when you approach someone, slow down, check – I’m OK, are you OK?, and then go on your way with a friendly gesture that leaves the other person feeling good.

If we all did this it would make the world a better place.

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