(Road) Rules of Engagement - USA

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North America » United States
March 12th 2016
Published: April 16th 2016
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I was glad I had nominated Steve for the initial stages of the driving because I couldn't figure out any of the conventional road rules, with everybody undertaking and overtaking, coming up behind us every which-way on very poor roads. The constant 'ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum' noise from the tyres was almost hypnotic but every bridge was coated in a different substance, usually concrete, so that the sound the tyres made over those was different. I wasn't sure what the purpose of that was but it was clearly deliberate. I wondered if it was to alert drivers that they were on a bridge (as if that would make them drive any differently?!) but we could generally figure that out for ourselves - the clue was usually in the water beneath, though the texture also changed on bridges going over roads or other structures. There's LOTS of bridges in the parts of America we visited so you can imagine irritating it became. We saw many vehicles at the side of the road with flat tyres and shredded rubber regularly littered the roads, often in huge chunks from the huge 18 wheeler lorries, so there was evidently significant wear and tear. Heavy vehicle use of the road seemed to be monitored and there were many, many weigh stations where the lorries were pulled in to a rolling stop for checking; they literally rolled through and carried on, causing no great delay to the drivers and they seemed like a good idea to me.

Another thing I couldn't understand was that the majority of vehicles had a red indicator tail light. Like, red, as in the same colour as the brake lights. They winked on and off, like a lot of the 'improved' version of the brake lights. Were they braking, indicating, neither, both? It was beyond me, though I studiously tried to make sense of it all for when it was My Turn To Drive. The only positive thing I could say was that they all more or less stuck to the speed limit (dreadful things can happen if you don't, including on the spot fines of all the cash you have in your pockets which then goes straight into someone else's pockets, or so we were told). Over the length of our Road Trip we later saw that there was no escape from speeding fines which were variously enforced by law enforcement officers, dedicated highway patrol vehicles (remember CHiPS - it still exists .....), and we saw signs telling us speed was monitored by radar and, on one splendid occasion, aircraft and the thought of being overtaken from above as well as from both sides was too scary for me to contemplate. We never did figure out all the various remits of the local Sherriff, Border, State and/or Federal police cars we saw along the way, but reflexively hit the brakes every time we spotted them anyway.

I've always adopted the 'when in Rome' rubric when I'm in someone else's country, so we generally tried to drive like everybody else. Americans are really good at indicating so so were we. They were really good at sticking to the speed limits, so so were we (most of the time). They rarely hooted, so neither did we (a miracle for me - I have been known to take my car in for repair because the horn was broken) and they NEVER flashed, so neither did we. That was a good thing, as we later heard that it's against the law to flash your headlights ......

We only came across ONE roundabout during all our miles on the road in the USA (at Ehrenberg). Fortunately, Steve was driving and there was a vehicle in front of us so we just followed him round. Generally, the Americans like a four way intersection in preference to a roundabout. It seemed to me, when I was in the driving seat for these things, that it was just an excuse to stop all traffic and get everyone to dither about for a while, waiting for someone to make the first move. It turned out that there was some sort of etiquette to these things though, and you were supposed to cross the intersection in the order that you arrived at it. This presupposed, of course, that you had taken note of which vehicles were there before you and weren't concerning yourself with road position for the left turn you were about to perform or how to turn off the wipers you had just put on instead of the winkers. Apparently, as one lady 'from Ireland, many years ago' told me, it was all about RESPECT. Well, I was very thankful for all the respect and patience the American drivers showed to me, but I would have appreciated a 'you go now' headlight flash much more.

And the traffic lights, OMG the traffic lights. Given how religiously the Americans seemed to abide by the driving rules, we couldn't believe how many of them went through a red traffic light. These were the red lights on the right-hand lane, generally at cross-roads. Well, it turns out that you can go through a red light in America, if you are turning right and the way is clear. Who would have thought? Not us, because we remained stationary at more lights of this type than we wanted to remember after learning this was a permitted manoeuvre. Still, nobody tooted us to get a move on .... There was one splendid occasion when we stopped at a junction on a three lane highway to be greeted by SEVEN overhead traffic lights. Okaaaaay, which one applies to our lane? (we just followed the guy in front in the end, and went when he did). We never did work out what a flashing red light meant (stop if you feel like it, maybe?), or the various other versions of things that were not quite 'stop' or 'go'. We hoped the flashing amber light that sprang into life just as we passed it was monitoring the speed of the car overtaking us at that point as he was certainly going faster than we were even if we were going just slightly faster than the speed limit, honest guv.

We did a lot of driving on the Interstates which varied from being an American version of the M25 (lots of traffic going nowhere fast on poorly maintained roads) to almost rural byways. The Interstates were really good at providing rest stop areas, usually every thirty miles or so, and they were well used by all road traffic. They generally provided seating and picnic areas, pet exercise areas, toilets and refreshments and were often in scenic areas so that you could enjoy the view. If they were on state borders they usually had a volunteer-staffed information point where you could pick up free maps and other useful information, and they usually made a feature of some local history. They were, without exception, clean and well maintained. We made good use of these areas and I chatted to lots of other travellers doing the same thing. The only one I didn't explore too much was the one with the signs warning of poisonous insects (scorpions) and snakes (rattlers) in the undergrowth. In contrast to the Interstates, the State highways tended to be empty, in much better condition and much more pleasant to drive on but, sadly, didn't offer many direct routes. These roads tended to force an exit into the nearest town for a rest stop, which was no bad thing for us.

We saw a lot of motorcyclists; some wore helmets and some didn't and we couldn't decide if they were free spirits flouting the rules (if there were any on this issue) or just stupid. We saw very few Greyhound buses which we had considered at one point as our preferred mode of transport but given how thin on the ground they were we were glad we didn't (or maybe they don't use the routes we did). I had expected everyone to be driving a car the size of a Sherman tank but they mainly fell within the 'large sedan' parameters and we did see the occasional Fiat 500 and Smart car, mainly in the cities. The Americans do like their pick-up trucks though; these are often working vehicles or used to pull their version of a caravan so I forgave them when I saw them performing a job. There was some road kill on all the roads, but not an excessive amount given the volume of traffic, and it was 'different' but still sad to see such things as small crocodiles that had wandered out of the wetlands. There were lots of marker crosses, to indicate where road users had lost their lives.

The towns and cities clearly provided for vehicle traffic. My initial concerns about where we were going to park when driving into busy city centres were unfounded (with NYC as the only exception). There were LOTS of conveniently situated car parks, right in the middle of the cities, for very reasonable cost (generally less than $10 for the whole day, and usually only around the $5 mark). Even those with the big RVs were provided for, though they usually had to unhook the 'runaround' car they dragged behind them.

The best thing by far about driving in America was the price of the petrol. I thought I had understood their petrol to be significantly cheaper than ours so I was surprised to see that it cost around $1.80. Wow - this was going to turn into an expensive trip for us! Happily, as well as operating in miles instead of kilometers, the Americans operate in gallons instead of litres and their liquid gallon is bigger than the UK version (apparently). So, we could fill up the tank for about $20 - happy days! The only difference was that we had to pay for the petrol before trying to put it into the tank and we found even that was better than trying to dispense just the right amount of dollars' worth of petrol - pay up front, stick the pipe-thing in the tank and it cut out automatically when it had dispensed your money's worth. Wonderful.

I can't say I enjoyed driving in America. This wasn't America's fault, it was more to do with my own failings. Being on the other side of the road threw up all sorts of issues my brain just couldn't come to terms with. The dreaded right turn I avoid at all costs in the UK became a dreaded left turn in the USA. Years of glancing to the left to look in the rearview mirror just wouldn't go away, and when I did remember to look to the right the perspective was all wrong. I asked Steve to tell me if he saw something I didn't and he got fed up of telling me I was driving in the hard shoulder (slight exaggeration but my positioning was all wrong!). I kept walking round to the driver's door, even when I was the passenger. On two lane roads I kept pulling over to the left hand side to park - instinct and reflexes I guess. I chose My Turns To Drive with care - and only on the quieter roads with no major cities as our end-point. Thankfully, Steve had none of these problems, he quite enjoyed the cut and thrust and challenge of it all, did by far the most of the miles and got us safely across the country with only one minor blip when we were both tired, it was dark, a road in a car park was closed and we ended up driving on the wrong side, much to the surprise of the oncoming car!

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