Thursday, March 26, 2009

Us vs. Them: Driving

I love driving in California. Yes we have six lanes of freeway traffic, unbelievable congestion and people driving without licences or insurance, but that's preferable to driving in the UK any day.

It's hands down easier to drive over here and these are just some of the reasons:

  • For a start the roads were built after the invention of motor vehicles so there's no inching down medieval streets or narrow country lanes praying that you don't meet an SUV coming the other way.
  • In Santa Barbara I've never felt the pressure to overtake a tractor on a blind corner because I have sixteen irate Ford Mondeo drivers behind me wishing I had the balls to just make a move.
  • Over here it rains about five times a year, and granted you do get floods, raging torrents of water flying down State Street, but I'll take that over driving in snow, black ice or a heavy fog.
  • Cars start here. There's no early morning WD40, no rust, no cold engines. I used to look at some of the steep driveways in SB and think 'however do they get their cars up there in winter'. Not a problem. (I'm not the brightest bulb sometimes).
  • 99% of the cars here are automatics, there's no stalling, no hill-starts, parallel parking on a slope is a breeze. My driving skills may be atrophying here due to lack of a challenge, but I don't care!
  • Roads are built on a grid system making getting lost relatively impossible (although even geography graduates have been known to fuck up occasionally...).

There are a couple of exceptions that prove the rule though:

  • Firstly, we have smog tests here but no MOT. If you're in a car that's not obviously impeding traffic, whatever the dangers lurking beneath the hood, then it's considered roadworthy. That coupled with the fact that cars don't rust means you have the worst selection of cars driving around. Accidents waiting to happen. Old VW wagons shuddering on to the freeway at 12 miles an hour, tires more threadbare than our bank accounts, brakes so spongy they make my stomach seem like a six-pack. I should know. We used to drive a battered VW Rabbit (a Golf for those in the UK). One day I was cruising down a steep hill to a traffic light at the bottom. A heavy marine layer had left the road if not wet then moist. I hit the brakes. Nothing. The lights at the bottom of the hill turned red. I frantically pumped the brakes and slowed perhaps 2mph. I was still hitting the brakes as I careened across the intersection miraculously avoiding traffic. That same car's clutch cable snapped on the freeway a few months later leaving me trying to slow down but unable to change gears. All of which would be caught by an MOT, oh, perhaps seven years prior.

  • The most glaring difference between driving in the UK and here though is the freeway on-ramps and off-ramps. In the UK you'd better be paying attention to your exit, because if you miss it the next one is Sheffield, 30 miles away. This can leave a car full of nervous passengers if the driver has a short fuse let me tell you. Over here, exits come by the street, not the town. They are everywhere. Convenient, yes. Practical, not so much. Sometimes in their enthusiasm to have as many on- and off-ramps as possible they combine the two. Case in point the one particular off-ramp in SB that I navigate every day. It's also an on-ramp. That's right, cars merging on to the freeway combine with cars using the off-ramp as a regular street, combine with cars moving off the freeway. It's high-octane hell. As if that weren't bad enough, it's the only freeway exit to the City's main hospital. This leaves you driving past watching for cars merging on to the freeway, or exiting the freeway, or driving along the on-ramp having no intention of getting on the motorway, many of whom are driving sick loved ones to the hospital and aren't exactly paying the best of attention in the first place. Bonkers. Then there are the on-ramps in Montecito that are approximately 15 yards long giving a Formula One car racing start a run for its money, or my personal favourite the on-ramp that enters onto the fast lane of the freeway. Try navigating that one in a car that does 0-60 in five minutes.

  • That's it though, my pet peeves of Southern California driving (well that and people NEVER using their turn signals/indicators over here). Am I supposed to read your mind dear? From the look on your face even you can't decipher what's going on in there.

Despite this, it's still, so, so much easier to drive over here. Not an errant sheep in sight. No sideways sleet, 14th century bridges, or hill-starts.

I do hate stop signs though.

11 comments:

alienspouse said...

Do you promise it's easier to drive over here? I haven't driven a car since I passed my test 16 years ago, and now I really need to learn again because you simply have to drive in North Carolina.

I've been dreading it, but from your description maybe I should just relax.

Little Britainer said...

Definitely you can do it, just relax!

Even city driving here is easy compared to the UK - I agree with Ali, the craziest stuff happens on those winding country roads (ducks, cows, you name it. Not to mention floods and blown down trees).

Driving here can be a bit mind-numbingly boring though, if you have an automatic car with cruise control and gps... It's (ha) almost dangerous how little attention you need to pay to the road.

AliBlahBlah said...

Alienspouse - definitely easier. As LB said perhaps a little too easy, and I would agree. I think I was the only woman on the freeway this morning who wasn't applying lipstick at the same time as driving....

Ali said...

Okay, I'm gonna do the UK vs Oz for you:
In favour of Oz:
1. The weather, as you mentioned. I do not miss icy roads and windshields.
2. The traffic lights in London can be really bizarre. I will never understand intersections where there is a forward arrow that changes colour while the main light is meant to indicate whether or not you can turn and stays red. Over here there is a turning arrow. It makes more sense.
3. The sheer volume of traffic in London.
4. Easier to navigate, makes sense.
5. There are petrol stations in logical, easily accessible places - some parts of London are a nightmare to find a petrol station in.
In favour of UK:
Drivers are far more tolerant in the UK. People get really pissy here if you are an assertive driver, in London people expect it.

Heather said...

So I am 50/50 love the bigger parking spaces, bigger freeways, turning on a red. Hate the on/off ramp scenario, undertaking, the fact that cars drive around with no bonnett, bald tyres and plenty of people without insurance.

As for the UK now - you can't go anywhere without a speed camera.

Plus like you I think my driving skills have atrophied.

Thanks for stopping by my blog - I've liked reading your posts.

MikeH said...

Driving over here is surely different; it takes a lot of skill to manoeuvre an SUV down a village street.

Melissa said...

I think you are the first person I've heard say they love driving in California.
I hate traffic lights too. Roundabouts are genius. When will America catch on? They save time, energy and money.

mccutcheon said...

completely off topic question, but since we're thinking about taking a holiday in the lake district this summer I've been wondering about "driving on the other side". have you had issues adjusting?

Expat mum said...

Come and try driving in Chicago where
- the streets were built before the motor car was firmly established
- it's built on a grid but all the streets are one way, meaning that you have to "seriously plan" even picking your teenager up less than a mile away
- an amber/orange light means rev up and race through the light before it changes, rather than 'prepare to stop'
- the motorway that takes you to some of the northern suburbs (ie. north) is actually marked I-90 WEST, and the one bringing you back into the city (south) is marked EAST
- No parking when the snow is more than two inches, which is of course, entirely open to debate (or bribes)

Took me forever to work it all out.

AliBlahBlah said...

McCutcheon - driving on the other side of the road isn't as hard as you'd think, most of the time you just follow other traffic. The only difficult thing is positioning your car on the road, driving in the States or in continental Europe means you're used to a large part of the car being on your right hand side, so when you're in the UK you end up driving in the ditch as a result!

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