Did you know that baby rats learn table manners from large rats? Really and truly. In the 1990s, research on black rats showed that the neatest way to eat pine cones is not passed down from generation to generation through genes, but through social imitation. Without being aware of it themselves, rat babies receive etiquette lessons from their rat parents.
This vital morsel of information suddenly came to my mind as I was overtaken by an ambulance on a two-lane road in Cornwall. I was driving east on the A30, and it passed by, flashing lights and sirens. The ambulance driver gave him quite a kick – he quickly ran towards me.
Do you have to overtake an ambulance with flashing lights?
And then we arrive at the foot of Hamburger Hill. (Not his original name, but there’s a McDonald’s halfway up the hill, ever since a McDonald’s was a very rare sight in Cornwall, so it’s called Hamburger Hill here.) It’s a long, steep hill. The ambulance has a hard time with it and goes slower and slower – 110, 100, 90 km/h. I keep a respectful distance… 85, 80, 75 km/h. He may have a very obese patient on board. Surrounded by very obese family and loved ones.
70, 60, 50 km/h. The road splits into three lanes. There is plenty of room to catch up. It will take many hours for the ambulance to reach the top of the hill. But on the other hand, you can’t just overtake a meat truck carrying flashing lights and sirens, can you? Just imagine that, just as you are overtaking, you get a catastrophic blowout and send yourself and all the slack into the guardrails. Beautiful headlines…
I’m not the only one being polite. Nobody catches up. Halfway through Hamburger Hill, a queue of about 50 cars is now moving along, all of them plodding behind the ambulance at 25 km/h. An Audi A5, clearly oblivious to the social situation unfolding here, races past the queue on the third lane. When he reaches the point of the procession, he surveys the circumstances and sheepishly joins the line somewhere.
Is it a social experiment?
All this is a) exceedingly bad news for my impending dental appointment, b) a strange, fascinating phenomenon, as if Milgram’s famous experiment is briefly performed live here on a Cornwall hill. I just checked the Road Traffic Act. It turns out that it is perfectly legal to overtake an ambulance with flashing lights and sirens, if you do it carefully. But it’s not about what’s in the Road Traffic Act, is it?
Not all laws are written
It is about those unwritten but equally binding Laws of the Way. When is it polite to honk and when is it rude; what is the exact point at which you are supposed to merge when two roads merge; when do you let someone go ahead when they really don’t have to, and when not. Rules we all know, but we don’t even know we know.
No one has told us these things (well, not to me: maybe there are people who talk about little more than ambulance passing etiquette). We have subconsciously absorbed it all without thinking about it. We are just impressionable baby rats, learning table manners without being taught, absorbing without realizing it.
#road #users #common #baby #rats #table #manners