It finally happened: I was let loose on the roads of America over the holiday break and got behind the wheel for the first time in what seemed like forever. It marked my first time driving in the U.S., after more than 10 years of motoring back home in the UK.
I’ll be honest, in the days leading up to the trip I was a bit apprehensive about the switch to the right-hand side of the road. It turned out that the road to the right is pretty similar to life out left.
But, before getting into the minutia of it all, let’s discuss the wheels I chose for my first taste of American automotive freedom. Sadly, it wasn’t quite the Mustang I’d dreamt of, instead, it was a much more mundane affair.
Because it was a bit of a last-minute trip, the only thing left on the road was a seemingly long-forgotten Zipcar. I’ve used Zipcar a lot back home and it’s usually a manual Volkswagen Golf, Polo or Hyundai i20.
Simple, but fun, city cars that are fine for the streets of London are not the standard of the U.S. renter. Over here, it’s an automatic Honda CR-V or nothing. So I took the Honda.
Fun fact, it was also the first automatic I’ve driven.
So, my first taste of driving in America would come in upstate New York, behind the wheel of a Honda CR-V with an iffy transmission, low tire pressure and more than 600 miles over its recommended service date. The experience got more precarious as the snow started falling when I pulled out of the parking lot. Off to a great start then.
But, once tensions had simmered and I’d realized there would never be a clutch pedal to push, the differences and similarities between driving in the UK and U.S. began to really show themselves.
First was the roads. On the whole, for some reason, the highways and roads ‘round the Finger Lakes felt almost like driving around Sheffield in the UK, which is where I learned to drive.
But despite their geographic similarities, there was one not-at-all glaring difference between traversing the streets of Sheffield and Syracuse: Why the heck aren’t your damn roads reflective over here?
In the UK, roads are lined with highly-reflective paint and the central reservation is packed with gleaming cats eyes. These help illuminate your way and easily show the point at which one lane ends and another begins.
But apparently the cutting edge tech of *checks notes* the reflector hasn’t yet reached upstate New York. So, that means you’re left to rely on your headlights to guide you. Or, as I found to be more likely, the glaring beams of an oncoming driver will instead guide your way. As, for some reason, everyone driving in New York last week was unable to dip their beams.
Another stupid difference! Why is everyone always charging across the open plains with their headlights on full-beam, blinding anyone who might cross their path?
It’s not even like I was in a small car so I could blame the constant dazzling on my low driving position. Nope, it’s just an onslaught of selfish drivers, or maybe it’s a fault of the U.S.’s antiquated headlight laws?
And if you wont turn off your headlights, please tell me why you won’t turn on your indicators? Lane changing on a motorway, navigation through an intersection and approaching a traffic circle were all a guessing game.
On the subject of traffic circles, or roundabouts to normal people, I was led to believe that these weren’t a thing stateside? Well, Syracuse and Rochester seemingly didn’t get that memo.
I can only put fellow road users’ inability to use them down to the fact that these must be the only roundabouts for miles around. Each time I approached one of the multitude of traffic circles in these towns, other drivers never indicated what way they were heading and darted about erratically.
It’s a hairy moment approaching a big traffic circle at night, when you’re left to guess where your lane ends and what direction cars around you might dart, all while trying to dodge the blinding glare from anything heading your way.
Now that all those illumination issues are out the way, what about the other stuff? Well, on the whole, driving here is pretty damn easy. I can see why you let people do it at 16.
The roads are all ridiculously wide, I guess to make space for all the trucks and semis that dwarfed me and the CR-V.
Additionally, these roads are signposted to heck, with everything from restaurant stops to directions. I even spotted signs calling on locals to “adopt a highway” or others decreeing that “Jesus Is The Answer.”
Talking of signs though, what’s up with speed limits in New York?
We barely made it above 45 mph on most roads, which seemed very low for wide open pathways in the middle of nowhere. Then, when we did hit the highway we were stuck at 65 mph. That’s still below the 70 mph that’s acceptable back home.
Also, there didn’t seem to be any traffic calming measures as we approached towns, villages or school districts. Where back home these streets would be flagged by width restrictors or blocked by speed bumps, they don’t seem to be a thing here. Is this the case across the country?
Then there’s also the whole issue of turning right on a red light. That’s a weird rule. Why is it a thing? And, there’s no nice amber warning light to tell you that the lights will soon turn green and it’ll be your time to shine. I missed that.
I also spotted a few smaller differences, like pre-pay gas pumps that don’t really exist in the UK yet, and something called a “designated texting stop,” which is something I’ve never encountered before.
After uncovering all these quirks during a 200-mile trip, it doesn’t feel like driving in America is that scary. I just need everyone else on the road to figure out what they’re doing before I hit the highway once more.