Musings of a morbid mind

The general ravings of Scott Baldwin

Monday, September 12, 2011

Driving in Los Angeles

I asked a few locals advice about what to do in California, and all of them unanimously said “rent a car with a GPS”. Hrmmm… being a huge public transport advocate, and also having lived in Melbourne for 7 years without a vehicle of any description, I was initially a little bit reluctant. Add to this the whole issue of driving on the right-hand side of the road, and I was especially hesitant. But, I asked their advice, and knowing that I did have a fair bit of travelling to do, so I decided to overcome my fears and ideologies, and rented a car. The first obstacle was figuring out where to rent them from. After clearing customs at LAX, I thought I’d just follow the signs to the car rental places like at Sydney or Melbourne airport. No such thing. All I saw were signs that said “Rental Car Shuttles”. After walking around for a while trying to find where the rental car kiosks were, and flip-flopping between just getting a cab or shuttle to my hotel, and sorting out car rental later, I eventually figured out that the rental car places were so far away from the terminal that they required a shuttle bus to pick potential customers up and take them there. Not having a booking, I hopped on an the first shuttle that came my way. It was an Avis shuttle. Not having a booking wasn’t a problem at all, and I was soon in my Kia Rio with a GPS programmed to take me to the hotel.

I was very aware of the fact that I had never driven on the right-side of the road, and that made me super conscious of the fact. I kept repeating to myself, I’m in the US, they drive on the right, right-hand turns don’t cross traffic, left had turns do”. I discovered soon enough that there was much more I needed to be aware of than just which side of the road to drive on.

Firstly, a lot of the iconography you rely on for fast information assimilation is different in a foreign country. This affects more than just driving. Even crossing the road takes me a good few seconds to figure out exactly where the signals are, I have been trained by conventions in Australia to expect them to be in a certain location and to have a certain look. In the US they are in a different relative location, and look significantly different. Add to that they often don’t have pedestrian buttons at intersections, but just rely on the continuous cycling of the lights to give everyone a fair chance at the intersection.


This difference in iconography was important on my trip from the airport to the hotel, as I could not seem to find a speed limit signs anywhere. My brain was just not picking up the differences in the signs. Of course to add to it, in Australia we use kilometres, but the Americans use miles. It is quite interesting how your eye becomes trained to picking up on certain visuals.



US speed limit sign vs Australian speed limit sign.

Thankfully stop signs are exactly the same, and traffic lights aren’t too different either.

Another thing that I’m finding is doing my brain in at the moment is the concept of the driver being on the left-hand side of the vehicle. This really messes with years of ingrained spatial awareness. Keeping the car in the centre of the lane gives you a very awkward feeling that you constantly have to fight against. So many times I have gone to look in my right-hand rear vision mirror to change lanes only to see the GPS I had set up on the dash-board exactly where my mind expects to see the potential on-coming traffic.

Also the road rules are subtly different. The “Right turn on red if clear” rule makes complete sense to me, but it is just so hard to break my conditioning and actually go through a red light, but of course if you don’t, you risk the wrath of drivers behind you who also want to turn right.

All this requires you to be in a state of awareness about your driving that years of driving in your home country has rendered unnecessary for day to day driving. The danger is always present that the mind will simply slip back into auto-pilot and you’ll do a left-hand turn and end up facing on-coming traffic, or make some other driving guffaw calling down the ire of other motorists and pedestrians just going about their normal lives.


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