Maybe it's because I'm a child of the Cold War era, but I grew up assuming America was a far more aggressive place than Britain in every way. After all, it has the most bombastic foreign policy, its citizens tuck revolvers into their glove compartments, and they talk in loud voices.
Americans don't apologise for their machismo. We have stifled resentment and The Bill. But last week while travelling around Arizona in a rented car – my first time driving in the States – I realised that there's one count on which the Brits hit harder than Americans: we're far more aggressive behind the wheel. You'd hardly believe it to watch Hollywood's depiction of car chases, but in real life they are comparatively meek and polite as they negotiate broad freeways and highways.
Ryan Gosling's speed-freak getaway man in Drive is an Xbox fantasy, not a reflection of the worse behaviour you'll actually see on US roads. Take the notoriously tricky four-way junction they use to negotiate the grid-like road systems over there. Usually, everybody has a stop sign. Whoever arrives at the junction first has priority, but reading the situation safely means taking care to watch the other drivers.
You're forced to roll over the junction slowly, just to make sure the other guy has seen you. In Britain – certainly in London – such a system would result in continuous car wrecks, as every van, bike and BMW (the marque recently shown to be most likely to honk, and generally driven like an idiot, incidentally) raced to get through the junction.
Then there are the four-lane freeways. Sure, it's disconcerting that Americans rarely signal when they change lanes, but manoeuvres are usually undertaken at a sedate pace, with a comfortable distance between vehicles. I compare this to my experience on the southbound A3 yesterday where I was forced to brake hard every time a suicidal minicab attempted to squeeze into a four-metre gap – in 50mph traffic.
So why is it that American drivers seem so courteous? I have a few theories. First of all, it's hard to really rev your engine in an automatic. Slam pedal to the metal and a Dodge SUV inches forward with all the enthusiasm of a sun-drunken elephant. The lack of a gearstick disconnects driver from his ride, its rising growl less expressive of inner angst than for his British counterpart. Secondly, the highway patrol, lingering under bridges and camouflaged behind tumbleweed at the vergeside, are intrinsically more scary than our equivalent and an effective deterrent.
Finally, besides the fact that Arizona seems largely peopled by retirees (and I do make an allowance for that, even though older drivers are not necessarily more polite nor more safe), I did wonder if the near-certainty that the guy next to you has a Glock in the glove compartment might make the potential road-rager hold back, for fear of bloody reprisal.
Not that I'm suggesting British drivers should arm themselves, but sometimes a little New World charm wouldn't go amiss.
And guess who the show-offs are...
Remaining in the driving seat, this week we learn the "surprising" news that women are superior to men when it comes to the art of parking a car. The news is surprising because just 18 per cent of women themselves believed that their sex were better at this long-contested driving skill, perhaps taking to heart Alvy Singer's words to Annie Hall: "Don't worry. We can walk to the kerb from here."
Reading the details of the NCP survey reveals why most men (and women) believe the opposite: male drivers are much faster at parking, giving the impression of competence, but the final placement of the vehicle is slapdash. So, male drivers are hurried, messy showboaters, unlike their careful, much-scorned female companions – who'd have thought it?