Where I went: US trip 2012, and driving in the US

31 03 2012

Here’s a mud map of where I went in the US:

I drove some 1625 miles (2600 km), but only over a few days of the two weeks I was in the US.

  • Leg 1: Saturday 3 March: Dallas/Fort Worth to Helotes (just north of San Antonio, Texas), stopping in Round Rock for lunch with a friend and staying overnight at Helotes. Total driving time about 5 hours.
  • Leg 2: Sunday 4 March: Just a little hop from Helotes to New Braunfels where I then stayed from Sunday to the following Friday.
  • Leg 3: Friday 9 March: New Braunfels to I-10, to LaGrange, then followed Highway 79 north-east to Tyler and I-20 to Highway 59 and Marshall, TX, where I stayed overnight. This was the longest drive of my trip, taking about 7 hours, plus an hour’s stop in LaGrange to visit the Texas Quilt Museum.
  • Leg 4: Saturday 10 March: Marshall, TX north on Highway 59 to Texarkana, then I-30 across Arkansas to Little Rock, where I took I-440 to I-40 and on to Memphis, Tennessee. Total driving about 6 hours. Once in Memphis, the car stayed in the parking garage for four days (except for a little jaunt to Graceland!).
  • Leg 5: Thursday 15 March: Memphis to Barlow (to visit a quilt shop, of course!), just north of Memphis, then back on I-40 to Bryant, AR (just out of Little Rock) where I stayed overnight. Driving time about 4 hours.
  • Leg 6: Friday 16 March: Bryant, AR to Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. Driving time about 5 hours.

Lots of Australians (and some US-ians!) tell me I’m very brave to drive in the US, seeing as though I’m driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. But to be honest, I LOVE driving in the US and have no problem with switching to ‘the other side’. Here’s why:

  • Foot controls in the cars are exactly the same, so you don’t have to adjust any thinking there. You still accelerate and brake with your right foot.
  • Gear shift is still in the middle. As every rental car I’ve ever driven is an automatic, this is a no-brainer. You change gear with your right hand instead of your left and that’s it — set and forget until you have to park, reverse, etc.
  • Column controls vary with EVERY car you get into. Sometimes the traffic indicators are on the left stalk, sometimes on the right; same with the windscreen wipers/washers. I guarantee that if you buy a car in your home country from a different maker, the column controls will probably be different! So no issue there.
  • Driving on marked roads is a no-brainer. You just follow the lane markings, other traffic, etc. and you can’t go wrong.
  • Driving on Interstates and state highways is a no-brainer. Everything is clearly signed quite some distance from where you have to take action, and every exit is numbered. These numbers are also on maps, sat nav systems etc. Just follow the numbers.
  • Taking the wrong exit is not the end of the world. If you think you’ve taken the wrong exit, the US Interstate and highway system is designed so that every intersection/crossroad has a way back… unlike some exits I can name on the Perth freeway system (e.g. South St exit in South Perth), which only allow you off and there’s no way to get back on again in the same place!
  • Getting lost is almost impossible (except perhaps in the larger cities and towns). Every road is clearly marked and numbered and the compass direction is clearly given. So if you have to follow 79N, you just look for the signs that say 79N. You don’t have to remember the towns you might pass through along the way to get your cues as to where to go. Just follow the numbered roads. (Australians could learn a LOT from this system — we do have numbered roads, but most people I know never refer to a road by its number, just its name or its destination, which must be REALLY confusing for visitors to our state/country.)
  • You almost don’t need to check the speed limit on the Interstates. There’s a lot of traffic and in general, you just travel at the speed of the vehicles around you. Trucks may be limited to a speed some 5 mph less than cars, so if you match a truck’s speed, you’ll be right.
  • Trucks must travel in the outside lanes on the Interstates. On a 3-lane Interstate, the trucks are only allowed in the two far right lanes. This means that cars etc. can always get past them as they are not allowed to hog the road.
  • Other road users are POLITE. Merging is usually a breeze as people — including those big trucks — let you in. There’s not a lot of that ‘I own the road and to hell with you!’ attitude I find on Western Australian roads (I haven’t travelled enough on other Australian roads to comment).
  • The roads are DESIGNED for traffic. Merge lanes on to an Interstate are invariably LONG, so there’s no ‘OMG! I’m running out of room to merge!’ moments that we get in Perth. Traffic coming into the Interstate has time to get up to speed and just pop in to the flow of traffic without forcing others to brake.
  • The road rules are sensible. Most states I’ve driven in have a ‘turn right on red’ rule (the equivalent in Australia would be ‘turn left on red’). This means that if you’re at a red traffic light and are turning right, AND it is safe to do so, you can turn against the red light without penalty. This keeps the traffic flowing because not everyone has to wait for the light to turn red before moving off. Another sensible rule is the 4-way stop sign, found mostly in suburban streets and smaller rural communities. The first person to the Stop sign goes first, the next person goes next, etc. But everyone has to stop and wait their turn. There’s none of this waiting forever at a Stop sign because the traffic going the other way won’t/can’t let you in. And did I mention that invariably people are POLITE about this and other road rules. That territorial instinct so beloved of Western Australian drivers seems to be missing, and as a result I’ve rarely (never?) seen any instances of road rage in the US.
  • Scary clover leafs are only scary on the map or from the air. When you’re actually on the road and driving, those clover leafs aren’t scary at all. Just follow the signs. Some of the biggest and most complex clover leafs I saw were as I flew into Dallas/Fort Worth airport — I was dreading finding my way out! But once I was on the road and with some basic directions to get me on to the right Interstate, everything was fine. Flyovers went over me and I went over flyovers, but they held no terror as I was just following the road I was meant to be on.

However, there are some potentially hazardous situations for driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road:

  • If you’re the first car at a set of lights and are turning across traffic, and the lane isn’t marked, and there’s no other traffic around to give you visual cues, you may have to consciously think about where you’re going so that you don’t end up driving into oncoming traffic.
  • Small suburban or rural roads with no traffic or lane marking  can be a hazard as you may automatically go into your ‘natural’ side of the road. So look for cues like parked traffic, and be very aware that the car coming towards you frantically waving is not being friendly but is wondering why the hell you’re on their side of the road!!
  • Being a pedestrian can be injurious to your health! You were taught to look for traffic one way, then the other, then back again before stepping out into the road. Well, I can tell you that I’ve faced more dangers from traffic as a pedestrian in North America than I ever have as a driver. You can get yourself killed if you’re not aware that the traffic is coming from your ‘unnatural’ side. It’s not so bad if you’re by yourself, but if you’re with a group and are chatting etc. you can get yourself in a lot of trouble.

One final thing… A lot of North American roads (including many Interstates) are made of concrete not asphalt, and as such they have expansion joints across them. As you cross these expansion joints, there’s a clunky sort of noise, and at speed, you might think you’ve blown a tyre!

So, if you’re going to North America, don’t be frightened of driving there. I can tell you that it’s a far more pleasant experience than driving in Western Australia and Perth in particular!



3 responses

31 03 2012

Hallo sandgroper

What an amazing trip! As a fellow traveller, I’m impressed. On behalf of intrepid adventurers everywhere, thanks for all the tips. I do have one question: What’s a mud map?

Mark Wordsworm
Travelling Worm

1 04 2012

Hi Mark

A ‘mud map’ is a rough map of where you need to go or where you went. It’s not exact. I assume the term comes from when people would use a stick to draw a map of where to go in the sand/mud. It’s an expression I’ve heard in Australia all my life, so I’m not sure of its origins.


1 04 2012

This is a different and fresh perspective on what is a rather mundane task for many: driving. You’re the outsider commenting on it all.
To me, this just highlights a lot of what we deal with in techcomm and usability – patterns. 🙂 Brilliant!

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