My Driving Saga

Week 1


6th February 1999

This was a shock to the system. I was driving a car on the other side of the road on the first day I was here. That may not sound like much drama to you, but it was big drama to me.

In my first week in America, I drove a car more times than I drove a car in all of 1998. And 1997. And 1996 and so on. I normally ride a motorbike. I rarely drive a car, so I have poor car road skills. I have adequate bike road skills, but not car skills. But even my bike road skills were faint, because in 1998 I didn't ride the bike in the second half of the year, because I stupidly let registration run out. So for the 6 months before coming to the USA, I was on the road only a few times. And in a car. So when I found myself in a car and driving on the other side of the road, I had problems.

I had to learn to drive a car again, and develop road skills again, and learn to drive on the other side of the road, and learn the landmarks and roads for a whole new area. Most people would simply have to learn to drive on the other side of the road and learn the new roads. I had a bigger challenge. It was so stressful and unnerving that I spent the first few weeks talking to myself in the car, giving myself advice, urging myself to keep calm.

As part of my work contract, I was given a rental car when I arrived. The rental period was for 6 weeks, and this should be enough time to get a Social Security Number and then get a drivers licence. The car was a 1999 Pontiac Grand AM. Brand new, very nice, all conveniences and 6 cylinders. It was pretty nice. So on my first day at work, Kevin, one of the guys I work with went out and rented the car in his name and brought it back. He then took me for a drive in it to get me familiar with the car. I drove, he rode shotgun.

The first stop was the Department of Social Security to apply for my SSN. When I got into the car, I had told myself again and again, drive on the right side, drive on the right side. The first time I swung onto the road, all the time thinking to myself drive on the right side, I swung onto the wrong side of the road. My old habits asserted themselves. That was the first and last time though. So Kevin told me where to go, and when to change lanes, and gave me all sorts of tips about driving in the USA. I was petrified and very wooden in my driving. He later said that he was a bit worried by my driving. But that was because I was having to re-learn driving a car.

Because the steering wheel is on the left side of the car, they have the controls reversed. The indicators are on the left and the windshield wipers are on the right. I cannot recall how many times I started the wipers when I wanted to indicate. I now have this under control, but if I have passengers, I get flustered and still turn the wipers on.

So anyway, we had a good drive around, went to the Department of Social Security, then the Department of Motor Vehicles to inquire about a licence, and cruised up and down and did U-turns and things. And buy a map of the area. I did get better. Just a little. Then we went back to work. At the end of the day, I followed Bronwyn home.

This was a big thing for me and an annoying thing for her. The way home involved a cloverleaf onto a large freeway, freeway lanes that merged, another cloverleaf onto a smaller freeway, and then some suburban traffic. In the dark. Scary stuff. Big stress. And here's where it was annoying for Bronwyn. She travels at the prevailing traffic speed. This is about 60 miles per hour. Yes, I also had to switch back from kilometers to miles. That wasn't a big problem as I never fully adjusted to metric. I still think in imperial, except for temperature. But back to the story, I am normally a fairly sedate driver. I travel slow. Bronwyn had to drive slowly so I could stay up with her. Even then, it was a bit too fast for me.

Next morning, I followed her to work. At lunchtime, I was really brave and I took a completely solo trip up to the nearest mall and had a wander round. That was scary too, but I was getting better and learning landmarks. I followed Bronwyn home again that night, and I was able to travel a bit faster and keep up and have no problems. From then on, it was all solo. I used the map. But even with the map, I still got lost a bit and missed turns. But I overcame these small obstacles and made my way back onto the right roads and made my way home. It might have taken me an hour to do a 20 minute trip, but I alwasy got home. And I was learning landmarks.

I also got a variety of traffic conditions. One morning was a bit of a stress maker. A thick fog was everywhere and visibility was very limited. That made my heart beat pretyy quickly during that trip. No-one else slowed down for that fog, so I was pretty terrified that someone would plough into the back of me because I was a bit cautious. I still got to work in good speed, and safely.

On the first weekend, I plucked up my courage and went for a solo trip to a moderately distant mall. It started out pleasant, but during the trip the skies opened and heavy, heavy rain bucketed down. Oh well, some more traffic conditions to get experienced in. I didn't see too many landmarks that trip but I found the mall I was after, and got got pretty wet getting from the car to the mall. I had a pleasant time wandering through this mall, trying to get dry. By the time I found my way back out and found the car, the rain had stopped. Later that day, after I had made it home and I was relaxing, Bronwyn came home with the news that I had a flat tyre.


So then I learnt a few things about flat tyres and doughnuts.

They don't have spare tyres in these cars, just doughnuts. A doughnut is a generic cheap tyre that goes on all cars. It's a different diameter to the other tyres so you can't drive as fast. The idea is that you put on the doughnut, get the real tyre fixed and then put it back on. As the doughnut is smaller than the others, it fits nicely in the boot. They are often called space-savers. People with sense go out and buy another real tyre to keep in the boot, but then they don't have room in the boot (trunk) for anything else. The other interesting thing is that you don't have to change tyres yourself. If the car is new and under warranty, you phone the manufacturer's 1800 number, and they send someone over to change your tyre for you. It's very civilised. When I phoned up to get this done, the woman was really helpful. She loved my voice and accent. She even phoned back to "check the phone number" and kept chatting to me till the guy arrived to change the tyre.

I thought the guy would come and fix the tyre. No. He came and put the doughnut on. I could have done that, although not as quickly or as easily. The idea is that the doughnut gets me to work and then the rental company come and fix the tyre.

Not so. I phoned the rental company. They wouldn't replace the tyre for me. They replaced the whole car. This was good because the tank was almost empty. It delays the moment of filling up the tank for another week. So I now have an 1999 Oldsmobile Alero. It's not as good as the Pontiac for lots of little reasons. It's poorly finished inside, and even the seat belt doesn't come out easily but tangles up. But it does have more power. When I plant my foot to come onto the freeway and slide into traffic and shuffle over lanes, that car leaps forward eagerly, much more so than the Pontiac. Still, I would rather have a car where the seat belt came straight out and didn't require two hands to get it on untangled.

Cars Know Best

I have got one gripe with the new cars over here. Probably new cars everywhere. All the new cars complain if you do things differently to how they want. If you put the key in the ignition without shutting the door, it beeps at you. Start the car without a seat belt on, it beeps at you. As if the car knows better than me what to do. I've been told that some of the new manual cars have a light that goes on when it's time to change gear.

At the end of the first week, I was a lot more comfortable with driving. I wasn't so stressed and I had recovered enough road skills, and adapted to driving on the other side of the road, so that I was able to start learning landmarks and getting around more confidently. My speed on the highways was up to the speed limit, shich still meant that all other cars were overtaking me. At the end of the second week, I was a lot more confident. I knew my way to and from work, plus how to get to lots of other places. I travelled on the highways at normal traffic speeds. And I had stopped talking to myself and giving myself advice. At the end of the third week, I was in the flow. Most of the driving was automated and landmarks had been absorbed, and I was able to pay attention to the nuances, like how to get on and off the highways when traffic was heavy.

More Doughnuts

More on the doughnuts. I have been told that it is not just a space-saving device, but a very good way of saving the other 4 tyres from being ruined. If they had a full replacement tyre in the boot, most people would put the replacement on, get the flat fixed, and leave it at that. But this apparently stuffs up the balance and has a good chance of ruining the other tyres. A doughnut forces them to get the tyre fixed, put it back on, and then have the four tyres balanced and aligned again. That's the theory. I'm not mechanically inclined and I weighed out of arguments like this back in 1974. I don't know what the truth is, but all I know is that the drivers bemoan the doughnuts and the people in the car industry think it's a good idea.

Traffic Cam

One neat thing I did find out was how to check the traffic. The DMV has a lot of cameras on the highways here to check the traffic. These are connected to a Web site and updated every two minutes. You can view the highways to see how heavy the traffic is, where the accidents are, etc. If you want to see what the traffic is like over here, go to this page and click on the camera located at the intersection of Highway 64 and Indian Road. It's right at the bottom, in the middle. I come up Highway 64 and turn right onto Indian Road to go home at night.

My Own Car

[The Nissan Pulsar]