On the Road:
A lot of Aussies we met in the States were not prepared to drive there, so were doing organized tours. We picked up a rental car as soon as we got to LA, which was probably not the ideal way to learn how to drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road! It’s not too hard on freeways and places where there’s plenty of traffic, but at first it can be really difficult getting used to navigating through normal ‘surface streets’, with intersections.
Making the left turn was always the hardest thing at first, as that is equivalent to our right turn. When you first do it, you have to be really careful to make sure nothing is coming towards you down the right (curbside) lane as you cross through the intersection. It helps to have someone in the passenger side (right seat) of the vehicle, and it gets easier as you get used to it.
The US Interstate Highway system, commissioned under Eisenhower in the 50s and modelled on Germany’s Autobahnen, is a brilliant creation. The more you understand it, the more you appreciate the cleverness and common-sense logic that went into its design. We don’t know how many Americans are aware that it was Ike who got the Interstate system built, with the original plan finally being completed (I think) in the 80s. In any case, it is good to see that in recent times there have been signs put up along these highways declaring them to be part of the ‘Eisenhower Interstate System’. These signs include a graphic of a five-star General’s insignia.
The even-numbered highways run East-West and the odd numbers North-South. The lower an even-numbered road, the more southerly it will be. The lower an odd-numbered freeway, the more westerly will be its course. So, Interstate 10, which we knew in LA as the ‘Santa Monica Freeway’, runs along the southern border all the way to Jacksonville, Florida. Interstate 80 still runs East-West, but follows a more northerly track from San Fran to Boston. I-5 runs from San Diego to Seattle, while I-95 also runs North-South, but along the East Coast, from Miami to Maine.
When we first got to the USA (Cali), we felt that the signposting on freeways
was nowhere near as good as Australia’s, as you could rarely see a sign that indicated the distance to each of the various cities along that route. For example, if you are on a major highway in Australia, the sign might tell you that you are 150 km from Goulburn, 230 to Canberra, 500 to Albury and 700 to Melbourne. It is unusual to see this in the western USA - generally the signs will only cover the next few exits or turnoffs. It varies from state to state – the east coast is more like Australia in their signage.
Probably overall their signage is not quite as good, but the reliance on ‘mileposts’ explains a lot of the difference:
Generally, at least in the western states, each exit is numbered according to the number of miles it is from the western (or southern) border of that state. So, if the hotel you're heading for in Arizona is off Interstate 40 at exit 87 (and you would know this, as that's how the hotel's address is described in advertising material and booklets supplied by the hotel chain), then you know you will be stopping 87 miles from Arizona's western border, and can easily work out how far there is to go by the mileposts that appear every mile along the freeway. These work to the same system in that they restart after you cross each state line.
My wife thinks this system would not work in Australia as it requires people to have some idea of directions. To explain: If you are travelling in LA and know you need to get onto Interstate 10, you will be presented at the intersection with a choice of '10 West' or '10 East'. It won't say 'Santa Monica' for one side or 'Hollywood' for the other. So, if you are between those two points and don't know that the beach at Santa Monica is to the west of Hollywood, you might have trouble.
I suspect Narrelle is right here - in certain jobs such as courier, taxi and pizza
delivery they value precision, so you are supposed to know where to go if they tell you the pickup is 'on the North-East corner of George and King Streets'. However, the ordinary Aussie has little idea of this. More than a few times I have given directions (in Sydney) by saying something like 'it's on the left side of the Pacific Highway, between x and y street, as you head north.' Often they will be confused by this, and will say 'you mean towards the city or towards Hornsby?'
The approach to speed limits is fairly relaxed. The days of the national 55 MPH limit (90 km/h) are well and truly over. Especially in the western states like Arizona, the limit is as high as 75 MPH (120km/h) and most drivers seem to sit on between 80 (130) and 90 (145).
The cops don't seem to care unless you go really over the limit or do something stupid. Certainly they have never heard of ‘speed cameras’ fixed on poles, 24 hours a day and the like, which are everywhere in Australia these days. ‘Red-light cameras’ do exist, on a small scale. You do see cops on the side of the road with the drivers they’ve pulled over, so you wonder what they must have done to attract the attention of the Highway Patrol!
Even if the authorities here in North America decided to adopt the Australian
approach to enforcement of speed laws, there would be a huge change required before they could get going. For example, they would presumably have to require licence plates on the front of all vehicles. At present, many southern states require a licence plate on the back only. Even in a state like California, they have a system whereby you have 30 days to register a new car after you buy it. So, for that first 30 days you can drive it around with dealer plates such as ‘Santa Monica Chevrolet’ on the car – there is no identifying number that could be issued to enforce a photo
of an infringement.
We found we could cover big distances in the Southwest more quickly than projected, as the estimates given in travel guides assume a speed of only 60 MPH (100km/h). If we drove in Australia like we drove in the ‘States, we’d lose our licences in a week or two!
We found this a welcome change from the obsession with speed enforcement in Australia, tainted as it is in many eyes by the suspicion of 'revenue raising' as opposed to an evidence-based approach to reducing the road-toll. However I must admit we started to question this after seeing four or five major accidents on the freeways, some fatalities I believe, within a few days. I don't know how their road toll compares to ours, per capita…
Having said that, don’t try and drive as fast as you like here and blame us when something goes wrong! We are only reporting our own observations of how it works.
Toll roads seem much less common than in Australia, especially in the West. I think there would be a revolution if they ever tried to slap the freeway tolls we have in Sydney or Melbourne on the LA freeway network! You do get the occasional bridge toll, and you pass about three toll booths within a few miles when leaving the Orlando airport, in any direction.
Toll roads are more common in the Northeast, and where they exist are usually called ‘turnpikes’, as in the Pennsylvania Turnpike (‘the Penn Pike’) or the New Jersey Turnpike. Some of these work like the European freeways where you pay according to how far you’ve travelled on the road.
Roundabouts are very uncommon, although you see a few in New England. I think they call them ‘Traffic Circles’ or something like that. They do have ‘four way stop-signs’ though, particularly in California. Everyone has to stop, and I think the rule is that the car which got there first goes first.
Towards the end of the trip, we are totally accustomed now to driving on the US side of the road – I make myself think about it occasionally, but only if I am tired late at night and there is little traffic about. Basically just me being super-cautious to avoid any screw-ups, remembering how fraught it was the first day or so. We were talking about this at dinner and both I and the kids now envisage cars driving the right side of the road and when we think of our Ford Falcon at home we have to make ourselves visualize it with its wheel being on the right side of the car. It's funny when I remember how strange it felt to sit on the right seat of a cab early in the trip as a passenger.
P.S. When we got home, it felt really strange to drive on the left side of the road, (and the right side of the car) again. Plenty of times we’d activate the wipers when we meant to signal a turn! It only takes a day or so to rewire the brain though…
The cars these days on average would be no bigger than those common in Australia. The best sellers are things like the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord etc, as well as the Ford and GM products that are like our Falcon and Commodore in size, but slightly smaller.
Famous nameplates like the Chevy Impala still exist, but are affixed to bland
cars of fairly modest size (at least compared to the old days) that would be
unremarkable if sold in Australia.
Apart from the real luxury cars, there are only one or two 'family' cars still made (Ford Crown Victoria and Mercury Grand Marquis) that are similar to the 'full-size' American sedan of yore. These are largely used as taxis, police cars and the like, although a fair few are still sold to private buyers.
But here's the thing: Only about 50% of sales are of 'normal' sedans. The rest are utes (‘Pickups’) and 'Sport-Utility Vehicles' (SUVs). These would be like the four-wheel drives common in Australia, but can be much, much larger. Some are absolutely enormous, with 8 litre V10 engines or truck-like diesels. Some of the utes have two sets of tires, an inner and an outer, on the back axle as a truck would.
SUVs and pickups are really noticeable in places like Texas. Driving along the beachfront at Galveston Texas, we did a very unscientific survey and reckoned about 80% of the vehicles parked along the waterfront were some form of SUV or light truck. This is not so noticeable in the North-east.
We had a 'mid-size' SUV, a Ford Explorer, for our trip around the South.
This is a relatively modest SUV, with only a V6 engine, although a V8 is available. It is sold in fair numbers in Australia. A very versatile vehicle, seating 7 people, and we can definitely see the attraction. Certainly few other vehicles would have accommodated all our luggage for a trip of that length.
The other day I had to give the Explorer back and get a very small 2 door car
instead. We had no need for an SUV just running around Orlando so it made no sense to keep paying for it. The small car is a Chevy Cavalier - pretty crude and basic, but OK for getting around town. After swapping them over, Zac and I drove back from the airport in the little car. We felt terribly exposed, in this tiny car, very low to the ground, with all these huge behemoths rushing by. A car like that is a normal family car in Europe or Japan, but here seems ridiculously small.
There is a movement here opposed to SUVs - one of their complaints is the great discrepancy between the weight and height of an SUV vs. a small car and what that means in a crash. I can see what they mean - if anything went wrong, some of those things would just about run right over my little coupe. Even the Ford Explorers we had earlier been driving loom large, let alone the real giants.
They love their cars to have really soft suspensions here, compared to Australia and Europe. This makes them quite comfortable on a smooth highway, but it gets interesting on bumpy or uneven roads. Our kids were delighted when we hit some undulating hills on the road near Death Valley. Going along at a modest 70 mph or so, the SUV would get almost airborne over each hump, then plunge down into the dip. Perfectly safe, but a sensation you would not get as much with the firmer suspensions we are used to.
Of the cars we had, we much preferred the Ford Explorer over the similarly sized Jeep Grand Cherokee. The steering and suspension were much better in the Explorer, whereas with the Grand Cherokee it was hard to keep it going in a straight line, requiring constant steering correction. The Buick Le Sabre we had for the Northeastern leg was OK, but a fairly old-fashioned vehicle, with a ‘split-bench’ seat and plenty of fake wood-grain trim. Still, a comfortable and spacious car for a long drive. Same 3.8 litre V6 engine as
our Holden Commodore.