Observations About America Part 1 – Driving

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

So as we travelled across America we kept a little note page where we jotted down differences between the USA and the UK. These may or may not be interesting, and I have tried to group them as well as possible.

First some observations from the main aspect of the trip: the driving. Clearly there are some big differences (aside from the obvious driving on the other side), and these are the most noteworthy.

  1. Petrol must always be prepaid, whether this means giving your credit card details up or paying cash inside the terminal. This could be frustrating because we were working strictly in cash. As a result, if we wanted to fill up we had to go in to leave a cash or credit deposit, and then return to collect the difference after filling. I believe this is because filling stations aren’t equipped with CCTV like the ones in the UK, and driving off without paying is therefore an issue.
  2. The above may sound like a nuisance, but I fully forgive the Americans because they equip their pumps with latches which automatically hold down the handle for you. These automatically disengage when the tank is full – making filling a far easier experience (or maybe I’m just lazy).
  3. Most petrol stations have wash and wipers for your car windows – and its free. This was most useful out in the mid-west where bugs continually splattered themselves on the windscreen.
  4. Also on the petrol side of things, there are still loads of small petrol companies, especially out in the countryside. And its common to be offered a discount if you purchase a carwash with your petrol. We even saw a station in South Dakota which offered student discount – something we didn’t pass up!
  5. Everyone is over-cautious when there are no traffic lights. Drivers always seemed very hesitant when it came to joining main roads and at four-way stop signs. The four-way signs likely wouldn’t work in Europe because no one has any patience – at least on roundabouts you have to stop if someone is already coming from the right. Oh, and no one ever breaks the road to turn! If you did you would just get driven into.
  6. Right turn on red. This is such an obvious thing to implement and its an insult to European drivers that we aren’t allowed to do it (the equivalent in the UK would be left turn on red). Since I got back I find myself sitting in left turn lanes waiting for a light when the road ahead is clear – very frustrating!
  7. In most places lorries (trucks) are allowed to go at the same speed as cars. This means they can go up to 75mph in some states. I’m not an HGV driver but I’m guessing going at 60 the whole time in the UK is frustrating.
  8. Popular tourist destinations never seem to be signposted! We don’t understand why this is but we found it all over the country. For example there are no signs at all for Disneyland until you are two miles away, and then it just says ‘Disneyland Boulevard next exit’. Luckily we assumed the park would be on that road because we weren’t told otherwise!
  9. They put exits on both sides of motorways. This was rarely a problem except in Chicago. We joined a freeway on the left and had to exit on the right in 0.5miles. Just cross over right? If there weren’t six lanes of 60mph traffic. We missed the exit…
  10. Unlike speedos in the UK which overestimate between about 5-10% (on purpose), in the USA they give the exact reading in mph (confirmed over and over again by my GPS). Therefore going at 65mph on motorways (the speed limit in many states), wasn’t actually any different to doing 70mph according to a UK speedo. Definitely a point of frustration for UK drivers!
  11. There are railroad crossings all over the place. I think I’ve only seen two in the UK but in the USA they are found throughout town centres and can sometimes hold up traffic for a long time. We even saw some out in the countryside which didn’t have barriers – you had to check for yourself if a train was coming!
  12. Road safety seems to be a lot better (I’m not sure if this agrees with statistics). Maybe we were just lucky but we drove over 8,500 miles and didn’t see a single accident or even the remains of an accident. In the UK I can barely drive 50 miles of the M1 without seeing the above!
  13. There is noticeably more road kill. Mainly in the Mid-West and Rocky areas, we would be worried about driving at night because deer seem to freely graze by and dart across roads. Animals we saw included deer, racoons and skunk, with a dead skunk leaving their signature stench behind – which smells almost exactly like marijuana!
  14. Overall I’d say driving is a more pleasurable experience in the USA. Nothing in the UK can quite compare to cruising along a deserted stretch of I90 in a state like Wyoming, when you know there are no towns for the next 300 miles. Also the fact that driving isn’t actively discouraged by the government helps! Not to mention cheap fuel…

And a photo to accompany the above: the car on my favourite road of the trip through the Bighorn Mountain range in Northern Wyoming.