The USA v Australia - Round 1 - Driving

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

My recent visit to the USA was many things, both expected and unexpected. I guess dreaming about a place for 20 years can give you a lot of expectations, so the trip had the potential to be a total disaster. Luckily for me it wasn't. It may not have been entirely what I imagined, but it far exceeded my expectations.

There were a lot of things I loved about the USA. To be fair - there were also a lot of things I disliked – and some of those were expected, so they were fine, but others were a bit of a shock, or things that you don’t think about when planning a trip. The whole trip and my experience in the USA have been on my mind a lot since I got back, so I figured I might write about these things, try to get them all straight in my head.

Having decided that, there are more things than I could possibly write in one post – not least of all because writing has become a bit of a struggle for me lately. So over the next few posts, I intend to explore the pros and cons of the USA – and unlike some kind of political exercise, this is really more about the pros and cons of the USA as an alternative to my own home than the merits of the USA as an entity unto itself. It’s about things that would entice me to live there, and things that would completely put me off.

In exploring the pros and cons of the USA vs Australia, it’s difficult to work out where to begin. My first experiences in the country were those of a tourist, so it’s hard to compare that to real, every-day life.

I arrived in San Francisco after around 17 hours of travel, and the first thing you see in any place you go is the airport. And really, all airports are kind of the same, so there’s no judging a place by their airport buildings. Given that, I guess my first real experience with the place was with getting to my hotel – and this brings me to one of the things that was most noticeable to me as a visitor – the drivers.

We had booked and prepaid a shuttle bus to our hotel, and on climbing aboard, my very first US experience is that the drivers (in San Francisco at least) are CRAZY. The driver took off like a shot from every traffic light, and braked at the last second. I spent 40 hair-raising minutes lurching backwards and forwards, trying not to end up smushed against the seat in front of me.

We careened down the intensely steep hills of San Francisco towards Fisherman’s Wharf as though we had a death wish. But somehow, it was ok – because so did everyone else on the road. For some reason, the craziness worked. There was no road rage. There was no one blasting their horns or flipping the bird at each other. Initially, I assumed this was because everyone was too terrified to be angry. But as my time in the USA went on, I came to realise that it was because no matter the way someone drives, people there just aren't angry at each other on the roads the way they are here.

It’s incredibly different in Australia, where everyone drives as if you’re trying to run them off the road, and the mind-set is kill or be killed.

In the USA, people made gaps for merging traffic. They backed off for people to change lanes instead of trying to shut them out or rear-end them. In the entire two and half weeks of my trip, I didn’t hear a single car horn that was blown in anger.

In fact, as you got into the smaller towns, the people just became more and more polite on the road. In one instance, we found ourselves a little lost in the middle of nowhere in Missouri. We pulled off the main road into a side street and paused to try to get the car’s GPS to point us in the right direction. We were so focused on the screen that we didn't notice what was going on around us – until I looked up and there was a car waiting patiently behind us for us to pull back onto the main road. Who knows how long they’d been waiting there for us to move! Maybe this may seem like a little thing, but in Australia you would have gotten a long, impatient blast of the horn to tell you to get a move on no more than 5 seconds after the car arrived behind you. In fact, I've been in situations here where I've been beeped impatiently at traffic lights in the gap between the light turning green and my car starting to move immediately afterwards.

And maybe Monett, Missouri was a little more polite, being the small town area that it is. But in the much larger town of Springfield, the drivers were still polite. It snowed while we were there, and apparently it’s even acceptable to get out of your car at the traffic lights and scrape the ice from your windscreen – and no one gets annoyed, even when the light goes green and you’re not back in your car.

We didn't even get road-raged on the two brief occasions where KJ made the mistake of pulling out onto the wrong side of the road. And I think that says it all.

Beyond the road-rage (or lack there-of) there were other things that I liked about the roads in the USA. The rule that allows you to turn right on a red light is great! We don’t have anything like that here. Since we drive on the opposite side of the road, it would be a left-turn on red rule for us. Unless there’s a slip lane, there’s no turning left at a red light. It would never work here, anyway – everyone is too angry on the roads. It would all just end in disaster.

It was a little odd to be on the wrong side of the road– but it didn't take long to get used to. What WAS unusual was sitting in the front passenger seat of a friend’s car, and being unable to shake the feeling that there should have been a steering wheel in front of me. I felt a little naked without it, as though something was wrong with the car.

Strange feelings about steering wheel position aside, being on the road in the USA was a dream.

Driving in Australia can be stressful – VERY stressful, and so for the relaxed and polite way that the drivers treat each other in the USA, this round of pros and cons definitely goes to the USA.

After Round #1
USA – 1
Australia – 0


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