Since 2011, my wife and I have made several long-distance road trips across the USA. And although I’d driven some short distances around Seattle and the Twin Cities of Minnesota, I’d never done any serious driving until then. So, it’s not uncommon for someone to ask whether I find driving in the USA difficult.
Answer: not really. Most don’t know that I spent over 27 years driving on the ‘wrong’ side, i.e. the right, while living in Peru, Costa Rica, and the Philippines.
So driving on the ‘wrong’ side is as normal for me as driving in the UK, on the ‘right’ side on the left. It’s just a case of learning the dos and don’ts, and the manners of the road.
Driving in the USA is (mostly) a pleasure (and straightforward), since away from the cities and main highways, the roads are generally quite quiet. However, some of the Interstates can be quite daunting, especially when two or more come together or diverge like large bowls of spaghetti, often with three or more lanes. Choosing which lane to occupy and when is a challenge. My sat nav during our latest trip was a godsend.
Finding your way around however is not too difficult. The road numbering system is quite clear, but the same road can have more than one name if two highways merge for a section. The Interstates (like the motorways in the UK or autobahns in Germany for example) connect centers of population across the country and are a legacy of President Dwight D Eisenhower, from the 1950s. Then there are the US highways, state roads, and county roads. Each has its own road symbol.
US highways are often divided highways, or dual carriageways as we say in the UK. The one big difference between the Interstates and US highways however, are junctions on the latter (often controlled by traffic lights) where you might have to stop. Most state and county roads are single lane carriageways in each direction.
Compared to the UK, speed limits are generally lower in the US. The norm for Interstates is 70 mph (I’ve seen 75) with a minimum of 40 mph. The maximum speed on US highways is 60 mph (occasionally 65), but most often 55 mph widely applied across the country. In towns the limit is often as low as 25 mph, and special lower restrictions (15 mph) often apply near schools when in session.
Speed limits and driving restrictions around school and school buses are rigorously enforced. When a school bus stops, lights flashing and the Stop sign extended from the rear offside of the bus, you’d better stop or else, whether you’re behind or approaching the bus. I must admit that I didn’t initially realize that the rule applied to oncoming traffic. I remember when we were traveling on US101 in northern California that I passed a stationary bus. Luckily there was no speed cop waiting to ‘ambush’ me.
Roads are more congested with trucks (lorries) in the UK than in the USA, but trucks are behemoths in the USA in comparison, and consistently travel at much higher speeds, often well over 70 mph on the Interstates.
This was one ‘extra’ size load that we saw in Wisconsin.
The idea of overtaking on both sides is something I still cannot reconcile. But it’s common in the USA on roads with more than two lanes. Just maneuvering between lanes can be a nightmare, having to check fast-approaching vehicles on both sides. Also, drivers tend to join a highway high speed; they ‘take no prisoners’, and just keep coming on despite other traffic approaching and occupying the lane they will join.
I often find US drivers reluctant to overtake on single carriageway roads. Admittedly there are oftentimes fewer opportunities to overtake. As I mentioned, we like to take the byways when making one of our road trips, mostly on single carriageway highways, and I try to keep more or less to the speed limit. So I find it aggravating when a ‘local’ starts to tailgate me, ‘encouraging’ me to go faster. But when the opportunity to overtake presents itself, they just remain tucked in behind. Clearly they want to go faster but are not prepared to exceed the speed limit to overtake.
Turning right on a red light takes some getting used to. I now understand that unless it specifically states not to turn, it’s OK to make that turn. Not something we’re used to in the UK. Red means red! And also, having to be aware that if you turn right on a red light, there may be pedestrians crossing as they will have right of way.
‘Right lane must turn right’ (or left) is a common sign on most roads. In fact, it’s useful to have a sort of slip road for departing traffic even on single carriageway highways. But it can be confusing at a junction, when you suddenly find yourself in the right lane and are forced to turn even though you want to go straight ahead. Fortunately my sat nav helped in this respect, and having become accustomed to this situation, I try to position myself in the left lane at a junction to avoid an unwanted manoeuvre.
Roundabouts are common in the UK. Near my home in Bromsgrove there are five within the space of 2 miles. Not so in the USA. Instead there of full stop, all way junctions, governed by a particular road etiquette: the first vehicle arriving at the junction gets to manoeuvre first, but only after coming to a full stop.
When I look over what I have just written, it seems to me that my driving concerns in the USA are not really very important at all. We’ve now covered somewhere in the region of 15,000 miles I guess in our trips. Plenty of time to get accustomed to driving on the wrong side.
However, thinking about the dos and don’ts of driving made me ponder on some other aspects of visiting the USA. And, as it happens, I came across this article, by Sophie-Claire Hoeller (a trilingual journalist who grew up in Germany) in Business Insider: 51 things Americans are doing wrong.
For ease of reading, I also copied her list of ‘things’ into a file.
So, how do these resonate with me? Several on the list are bugbears of mine: (4) Portion sizes; (6) Tipping; (7) Taxes; (12) So. Many. Questions; (16) Checking ID; and (49) Serving a salad first.
I never cease to be amazed by the amount of food that is served in restaurants. Portions are huge compared to the UK. No wonder there’s an obesity problem. I’d rather portions were smaller and bills lower.
Ten per cent is the norm in the UK when tipping – if you think the service warranted a tip. Not so in the USA, where tops as high as 25% are the norm AND expected. I agree with journalist Sophie-Claire. Why should I pay someone else’s wages? In one restaurant recently, where I’d left a 15% tip on the table for our server, I was faced with adding a tip of 25% (no lesser amount) – or none – when using my debit card at the checkout.
Why don’t retailers in the US just include the sales tax in the price listed? How many times have I been caught out at the till, having to add on the tax. Thank goodness for plastic money, and although I used my debit card more this last trip for everyday expenses than I had in previous years, I still ended up with a purse-full of small change. The grandchildren’s piggy banks benefited!
While we were traveling from Massachusetts to Minnesota, we would buy sandwiches, often from Subway, so we could stop anywhere on the route to have our lunch. Then the questions start: wheat or wholemeal, Italian, this meat or that, cheese, mayo, pickles . . . etc., etc. Phew!
I’m almost 70, yet, when buying a couple of cases of beer at Target in St Paul recently, I was asked for my ID! Fortunately the lady at the checkout was from Scandinavia (and had lived in the UK for several years) so recognized my UK photo driving licence. She told me that normally it would have to be a US or Canadian driving licence or passport. Good grief, 70 years old and having to present a passport just to buy a beer! And then there was $2.36 sales tax to add to the offer of $25 for two cases that had attracted my attention.
Salads should be served on the side. Period. I got a strange look from one server when I asked her to bring my salad with the entree. That’s how I like to eat my salad, not as a meal in itself before any other course.
Yes, the UK and USA, two countries separated by a common language (and with Trump in charge, many other things unfortunately), according to George Bernard Shaw. But we enjoy our visits there. It’s a vast – and sometimes quirky – country. Lots more to explore!