© 2017 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
Most of us who drive on a regular basis take it for granted. When we want to, or need to, go somewhere, we just get in the car and go!
As a farm boy, I started driving small pickup trucks and tractors around the age of 10. I well remember that in 1964, my older brother bought a brand-new car and he let me drive it on the dirt, public road near our farm. Although I was tall for my age, I had to look between the dashboard and the upper rim for the steering wheel. The car had a 3-speed, column-shift, manual transmission, but he restricted me to using first and second gears only.
It turns out there are many different aspects of driving, some of which I'll cover in this essay. And to be sure, road rules and customs vary from one state or country to another.
Getting a Driving License
In December 1969, I turned 16 years-old, the age at which one could get a driving license in South Australia. At that time, written and practical driving tests were administered by the state police, and most towns with a thousand or more-people had a police station. On the day of my driving test, the policeman got in the passenger side and told me to drive like I'd been taught, which was probably my downfall. I failed the test because I went over the speed limit, with a policeman in the car. What was I thinking! Anyway, I retook the test two weeks later, and passed. Back then, very few cars had automatic transmissions, so it was much more challenging to have to park on the side of a steep hill going upwards, and to take off again, using the handbrake.
I don't remember the details, but after one passed the theory test, one got a Learner's Permit and L-plates to put on a vehicle until one passed the practical test. (Years later, new drivers got a provisional or P-plate, which had to be used for a year or more.)
Three years later, I came back home in the summer to help my father with his wheat harvest. However, to drive his truck filled with grain to the local silo (US: grain elevator), I had to get a truck license. When I took that test, one of the first things I had to do was to drive around the very large roundabout. Now my dad had warned me that the latch on the driver's-side door wasn't working properly, and, don't you know, half way around the circle, the door swung open. I simply reached over and pulled it closed, and put my arm out the open window to hold it closed, and told the policeman, "Sorry about that; the latch is a bit of a problem!" He just laughed it off, and I passed the test. After all, that's how some farm vehicles are, right?
Back then, South Australian drivers' licenses did not contain a photograph.
In 1980, I got my first US license, in the state of Maryland, at the Department of Motor Vehicles. It was a very high-tech process. For the theory, I had to sit at a computer terminal and answer multiple-choice questions with respect to colored diagrams showing a series of driving scenarios. The one I remember vividly was that in which I had a green light, but a policeman was standing in the intersection with his hand held up, presumably indicating I should stop. One of the answer choices was, "Run over the policeman". Now I was pretty sure that was not only the wrong answer, but selecting it would probably fail me immediately.
One winter, I went to Saba, one of three islands in the northern Dutch Antilles in the Caribbean. Although it's part of the Netherlands, the government wasn't much interested in spending money to build a road system on an island with few people and only five square miles in size. Well, some enterprising locals built some roads and brought in some cars. Of course, with almost no traffic, it was very safe. And, interestingly, any license granted there could be used back in Europe! Soon, a travel agent started promoting a trip to the Dutch back home: "Come to Saba for a week's holiday and bring back a driving license!" And it worked. However, it became clear that the testing process was hardly rigorous, and the conditions were nothing like in the Netherlands, so the practice was stopped. [As best as I can tell, in many western European countries, one cannot get a license until age 18, one must take a lot of expensive lessons, and one often takes several tries before passing. On the other hand, people can consume alcohol at age 15 or 16. In the US, many states allow driving at 15½, but no drinking until 21.]
While many countries issue licenses for 5–10 years, they also require annual tests for those with disabilities or beyond a certain age. For many years, I've lived in states where it is mandatory to have one's car inspected annually to make sure it's safe. However, none of those states ever checks whether the driver is roadworthy! I think that would be a great idea, as well as a serious source of revenue. I see having a driver's license as a privilege not a right! And I'm willing to sit and pay for an annual written and practical test to have that privilege.
Driving on the Left vs. Right
This a fundamental difference between countries. I was raised in Australia, and like most British Commonwealth countries (with the notable exception of Canada), drivers sit in the right-hand side of a vehicle, and drive on the left-hand side of the road. I did that for nearly 10 years. Then I moved to the US where I sat on the left and drove on the right. Since everyone is doing it, it isn't difficult to master. What can be a challenge is switching over when traveling abroad. And to make it more interesting (read: dangerous), some places differ yet again. For example, in some former or current English territories in the Caribbean, the road rules are British, but many cars are American, which means one is driving on the left while sitting on the left. [I recently experienced this on the US Virgin Island of St. Croix, which I believe it the only US territory to have this convention. Interestingly, this island was formerly a Danish possession, not English.]
Although the US uses left-hand-drive cars, there is one important exception: US Postal Service delivery vans are right-hand-drive, so the driver can put mail in mail boxes at the edge of the road, on the right-hand side.
For more details about driving on the left vs. driving on the right, click here and here. As you will read, numerous countries changed sides!
[Note that international rules for driving power boats on water require water craft to keep to the right. Interestingly, this rule is also applied in Australia, so rules for boating there are the opposite from those for land-based vehicles.]
All countries to which I've been require some sort of plate on vehicles used on public roads. While many require a plate on the front and back, some require one only on the back (as in Indiana, US). In some cases, the front and back plates are of different color (as in the UK, where the front plates are white, and the back ones are yellow). According to Wikipedia, in the UK, "It is compulsory for motor vehicles used on public roads to display vehicle registration plates, with the exception of vehicles of the reigning monarch used on official business." (As my dear friend Günter is fond of saying, "Oh, it's good to be King!")
I remember arriving in the US in 1979 and moving to Chicago, in the state of Illinois. I was stunned to find that that state was just introducing vanity/personalized plates; after all, even sleepy old South Australia had them back then! (As it happens, much of the TV and movies exported to Australia back then were shot in California and New York, which did have vanity plates. I've since learned not to generalize about the US based on any one state, or region, for that matter.) Some countries prohibit certain personal "spellings".
In Japan, plates indicate the vehicles engine capacity.
In my early years in the US, each time when I renewed my car's registration, I got a new set of plates. Perhaps, they really were made by prisoners (as has often been claimed), and those fellows had to be kept busy, right! Nowadays, I get two small stickers, for month and year, which I put on the front and back plates. That said, they are quite easy to peel off, and I wonder why more are not removed or defaced by trouble makers. In Australia, we had decals instead, which were put on the passenger-side quarter-vent window, something that no longer exists. (In Virginia, I do put decals on my windshield, but they are for state inspection and a county tax permit.)
Many areas have plates with one of a number of approved slogans. South Australia is "The Festival State" highlighting its world-famous Festival of Arts. One from Virginia, US, is "1607 400th Anniversary 2007".
Ordinarily, German plates start with a 1-,2-, or 3-letter code based on the district (city or county) in which the vehicle is registered: For example, Berlin is B, Magdeburg is MD, and Rostock is ROS.
According to Wikipedia, "Several Native American tribes within the United States register motor vehicles and issue license plates to those vehicles." I recently witnessed that firsthand when I drove through the state of Oklahoma, a state that was created specifically as a home for a number of Indian nations (currently numbering 39).
If I understand correctly, with space being such a premium in Japan, one cannot register a car there unless one can show proof of a place to park it.
Now we're probably all familiar with high-rise parking buildings, but in Japan I saw cars being stacked one above the other using some kind of individual-car elevator. That is, there are no ramps, as there simply is no space!
From my observations in Italy and France (and probably other countries as well), it seems that if any one square centimeter (or inch) is inside a legal parking spot, then the whole car is parked legally; I kid you not!
I'm reminded of a story about a friend. In many paid-parking lots in his country, there is a metal device that after parking over it raises up under the car to prohibit it from being moved until payment has been made. He dutifully put in his money, and some car somewhere in the lot was freed, but not his! He'd entered the wrong space number; don't you just hate that when that happens!
In some cities in the US, a vehicle at an expired meter gets booted; that is, a heavy metal lock is placed on a wheel to prohibit the vehicle from being moved. (The rationale appears to be that drivers simply throw away parking tickets left under their wipers.)
More than a few places around the world charge a toll to use their roads, bridges, and/or tunnels. And sometimes the costs can be surprisingly high. Two such incidents come to mind. I was heading south from Innsbruck, Austria, towards the Italian border. Naively, I got on the autobahn and found I had to pay a large fee even though I only wanted to go a short distance to an exit just before that border. [Don't you hate that when that happens!] The other involved my driving across a bridge from the US mainland to Staten Island, New York City, and then across another bridge onto Long Island. And I did it in the reverse direction on the way back. That was the most expensive 10-mile trip I've ever driven!
Now I do live in an area with toll roads, especially one to my international airport. However, I avoid them unless I am really running late, or I can claim the expense as a business deduction (after all, time is money). In recent years, the circular beltway around Washington DC has added one or more express lanes, which one can use for a fee. (These are not to be confused with High-Occupancy Vehicle [HOV] lanes, which allow only vehicles with two or more passengers, at no charge.)
I've been travelling to the greater Seattle, Washington, area for more than 35 years, and on most trips, I crossed the Evergreen Point Bridge across Lake Washington. However, a couple of years ago, it was turned into a toll bridge, and I simply refuse to pay to cross. As such, when I use the approaching highway, I have to be sure to get off before a toll is due, to take an alternate route. I have also learned to configure my GPS unit to avoid paths requiring tolls.
Now, if I commuted some distance twice each work day, I might succumb to paying tolls if using a toll road was faster, but for the 32+ years I've been working from home, I haven't noticed much traffic between my bedroom and my office!
Here in the US, we have interstate highways, state roads, and local roads. I love the interstate highway system. North-south freeways have odd numbers starting from the west to the east. East-west freeways have even numbers starting from the south up to the north. Ordinarily, they have one- or two-digit numbers. Those with three join a major interstate at one or both ends. [I recently drove 2,631 miles (4,209 kms) in seven days, from Northern Virginia to Utah. Almost all of it was on Interstate 81 (I81) and Interstate 40 (I40).]
Until 25-odd years ago, most local and many state highways in the US had route numbers only, and a few had names. However, in an effort to assist fire and ambulance services, everyone in rural areas needed to have an address, so they could be found easily in an emergency. This meant having house numbers and road names. [A similar situation occurred in Australia.]
In my home state of South Australia, most of the interstate highway system consists of two, undivided lanes, with occasional passing lanes when going up hills. These roads are nowhere near as well-constructed as US interstate highways, yet the Aussie speed limit is 100–110 kph (62–69 mph), which is way too fast for this kind of road, especially when the lanes are not divided. Another problem is the discontinuation of much of the state's railway network, which has led to a huge increase of road transport, especially when it comes to hauling grain using monster B-double trucks/trailers. The wear-and-tear on many roads is quite obvious.
For the first of many pages of international road signs, click here.
One sign in Latin America that had me confused, showed the letter E inside a red circle with a slash through it. Obviously, something was prohibited, but what? It meant "No parking"; as estacionar is the Spanish equivalent for parking.
One of my all-time favorite signs is the set of three one sees when approaching an exit on an autobahn. The first, with three bars, indicates the exit is 300 meters on, the second has two bars indicating 200 meters, and the third has one bar for 100 meters. How sensible!
BTW, George Harrison famously wrote, "If you don't know where you're going, any road'll take you there".
The price of gasoline (petrol in British Commonwealth countries) varies widely, and often includes more taxes than fuel cost. Here in the US, local governments—counties and towns—can levy their own gasoline tax, and many do. And many large metropolitan areas straddle two or even three state borders/tax zones.
One aspect of the metric system that confuses me is the measure of so-many liters per 100 kilometers, versus the Imperial system's miles-per-gallon (mpg).
Filling a gas tank in Iceland or a remote Caribbean island, can give one a shock! The cost of fuel per day might be more than the cost of the rental car.
Some years ago, I drove to New Jersey (what was I thinking?) and needed to fill my gas tank. I noticed that I had to wait for an attendant to do it for. Apparently, at least in that area, only full-service existed; no self-service was allowed! [But then I also recall that on one interstate toll road through that state, when one wanted a toll ticket, one had to be handed it by a person who took it from the machine. The driver was not allowed to take it directly from the machine!]
By the way, where I was born, gas stations are called road houses. And I'm old enough to remember when attendants washed one's windshield (AU: windscreen), checked the tire pressure, radiator, and battery, and maybe even gave one a set of drinking glasses.
These vary widely around the world, from very low on small Caribbean islands to very high, with some countries even having minimum limits only in certain freeway lanes.
Years ago, in the US state of Montana, there was no limit during daylight hours provide one was driving safely. The nighttime limit was 75 mph (120 kph). However, when I was in that state a year ago, there was a daytime limit (85 mph).
As I mentioned above, I recently drove a small moving van across much of the US. For the first half, the limit was 70 mph, and most of the second half was 75 mph. While I drove at the limit much of the time, doing so with a crosswind and sometimes alongside a semitrailer, made it hard work.
In many US states, radar detectors are illegal. In Australia and other places, a device called an amphometer is used to catch speeders. This involves the use of two black tubes across a lane, with the time a car takes to run over both being used to determine its speed. I've heard stories of truckers slamming on their brakes when they see one, which rips the whole apparatus to shreds!
My home town in South Australia has had a large roundabout (turning circle) for as long as I can remember, and people never had any trouble using it. And I've seen roundabouts in other countries, including parts of the US. In the past 10 years, they have been introduced to my area in Northern Virginia, including my town, and I hear nothing but complaints. As I say to my American friends, "How hard can they be to master? Foreigners have done it for years!" Personally, I think roundabouts are fine, and if they cause drivers to think about what they are doing and to look at the other traffic around them, well it's about damned time they started paying attention!
I'm reminded of one of Chevy Chase's National Lampoon's Vacation movies where he is stuck going around the same roundabout many times on a trip in Europe, trying to figure out which exit to take. On the rare occasions that I drive down Massachusetts Avenue here in Washington DC, I fully understand his concern when a circle has eight or more exits.
As I mostly work from home, I don't drive a lot, but from time to time, I've come across traffic accidents. One involved a stopped car on fire, with black smoke billowing up from the burning oil and tires. Another involved a sports car that had driven up on top of the end of a guard rail and tipped over on its side. In a third case, I heard a loud bang, and looked in my driver-side mirror just in time to see a car crash into the median 100 yards behind me.
The one time I saw a tornado way off in the distance, I drove quite fast away from it, lest I finish up in Kansas!
For details of my own accidents, see my January 2016 essay, "Accidents and Incidents".
Although I've never had to put chains on my tires to go through snow and/or ice, I've seen numerous "chain-up" areas in various countries. And way out in the country on some US interstate highways, I've seen long gates that can be pulled across to close the highway during winter emergencies.
While many places still spread salt to melt ice and snow, more are turning to sand to improve traction (but not actually melt anything), as that doesn't rust vehicles and it doesn't leave a chemical residue behind afterwards.
In Alaska and Norway, I've seen flexible orange poles on the sides of roads, which indicate to snow plows where the edge of the road is. Given these poles can be more than 15 feet (5 meters) high, I'm glad I don't have to deal with that much snow.
In December of 1978, the Mother-of-All-Winter-Storms hit Chicago. There was so much snow that earthmoving equipment was used to clear whole streets, with more than a few cars being destroyed or discarded in the process.
Five years ago, I moved to a house with a garage, and I've had one ever since. The only new car I ever owned wore out from exposure to the elements: heat, cold, humidity, and birds. Now while many people would give a great deal to have a garage, almost all those Americans I know who have a garage (and sometimes two or even three) have them so full of crap that they don't have room in them for a car!
I hitchhiked some back when I was a teenager living in Australia. Since then, I've picked up more than few people doing likewise, in various US states and other countries. However, it wasn't until January 2016 that I tried it again, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. For the first half of my trip I had no car, and I was walking down a steep hill to a supermarket, and soon after I stuck out my thumb, a man in a pickup truck stopped. Unfortunately, no one did when I walked back up, in hot sun, carrying several heavy bags of groceries. The next day, I got rides to and from a state park with the second couple insisting on driving me right to my destination even though it was out of their way. Then once I rented a car, I gave two young guys a lift up to the top of the Haleakalā volcano, and I picked up a young man walking a bicycle loaded up with a car tire and rim.
My pet driving peeves are tailgating, not completely stopping at a Stop sign or when turning on a red light (here in my area one is supposed to actually come to a stop for three seconds), and talking/texting while driving. You know, the one good thing about capital punishment is there are no repeat offenders!
Finally, while they have some kinks to work out yet, driverless cars will almost certainly be a major improvement over the (way too many) idiots that inhabit our roads now!