Wednesday, June 09, 2010

driving in the US the First time 

Finally it was done I rented a car a drove in the USA. I am an indian on travel to columbus ohio on an official engagement. I have been travelling to the US for the past 2 years and had never driven before. Coming from India, where the concept of driving is radically different from that in the US, I hadnt found the comfort to rent a car and drive. Indian driving requires a completely different perspective and here are some reasons why.

  1. Lik the british and its colonies, driving in India driving is right hand unlike most of the world where its left hand. Vehicles move on the left lanes in India while its the right lanes in the USA. Having driven for 19 years in India, getting visually accustomed to the other side was being the first obstacle.
  2. The concept of Traffic rules is fundamentally different in india based on its culture and governance models. Most traffic rules are for guidance of the drivers than for strict adherence. Changing lanes, jumping traffic lights at empty junctions, preference for vehicles over people at road crossing are very much the road reality while these are an absolute no-no in the USA
  3. Additionally traffic flows much faster and in an orderly fashion in the USA. In India navigating through traffic is a continuous local contracting between various players, vehicles and pedestrians and traffic typically seems chaotic and are managed locally between the participants in the situation
These differences had made it difficult for me to take a car and drive or so i thought.

Finally the time arrived. I am planning to bring family along for the next installment of work and that would need a car and driving around. So i decided to take the plunge, drive around and experiment than be faced with the situation to drive when family is there which includes a jumpy kid in the back seat. Especially so, while i am finding my way through the rules, the changes and the directions all at once.

So this is about my first experience on driving in the USA and how it was done.

Renting the car and repayment

I rented a car from Hertz. I stay in downtown and chose a Hertz outlet that is the preference of my colleages who stay in the suburb area of Dublin. The outlet was about 15 mi out and as it took a while reaching the place with the somalian cabbie not knowing how to get there, i quickly realized that i could have taken a closer option near downtown. The car i  was given was a Mazda6 with a GPS added and all the insurance add-ons that the agent convinced me to buy into. I guess he had quickly realized that this was a prize kill. The process for renting a car with hertz is that you are shown the options that you buy into, then the agent takes you to your car and does a quick audit of the car for visible damage which he pencils into a visual diagram of a car in the records sheet then the agent hands the car over with documentation that needs to be maintained by the lesee. He also offers help with things like GPS use and other internal aspects of the specific model of car. In my case other than the GPS i did not receive any other instructions and initially nothing seemed necessary.

Earlier, as i reached the outlet and tried paying the cab, i realized that  I had insufficient cash and the cabbie did not have a Credit payment option, so i had taken a a quick loan from the agent and now it was my turn to find an ATM and make good the small loan he had provided

My first drive therefore was to the ATM. SO with the necessary documents in the glove box and some quick instructions to the nearest gas station, i started out on my little trip.

The first observation was that auto drive is very easy but needs some time getting used to. you use only one leg as there is not clutch this felt a bit odd initially, you dont change gears every now and then that was a instinctive movement that i had to get over. It was not difficult at all getting used  to the left hand drive. I quickly realized that it is natural that as the driverr sits on the left side of the car the lane, the instinct is to drive on the right lane. This seemed to comes naturally with that position.

I drove quite easily to the gas station which had an ATM that i did not realise was drive in ATM. I parked my car and walked to the ATM only to observe a car drive by and pick cash straight out. When i withdrew cash, i looked odd withdrawing cash standing at a drive-in ATM

My first challenge happened when i returned to the car and the car would not start. I then realized that i had shifted the gear before ignition and the car would not allow that as they are automatics, a habit i needed to get over and would trouble me throughout the 3 days with the car.

In the three days that I used the car the first day I went shopping to a local mall about 25 mi away got used to using the GPS. The Next day i drove to Indianapolis to visit a friend the 180 mi drive was simple and easy without events.

Some Important observations about driving that stood out

  1. Automatic cars need some getting used to especially things like ignition, no clutch, one leg remains totally free, the keys dont come of until the car is in Parking mode
  2. GPS works awesome and i did not miss a place. The only time GPS became uncomfortable is at dense downtown districts where there are closely spaced junctions and one could get confused and turn earlier to the indicated point.
  3. Left hand drive is not the most difficult aspect of driving, it is the internal controls that takes more time getting used to. The indicator and wiper levers are exchanged. I continuously operated the wiper lever when wanting to indicate a turn. Having got used to it finally, this issue stuck with me on my return to india. Now in india while i am driving i continue to operate the wiper instead of the turn indicator!
  4. Following the rules is very important i made a lot of mistakes as many of these rules were not being followed intuitively.
  5. I found the highway far easier than city traffic and found that a lot of drivers cross the speed limit by 5 - 10 mi margin and control based on sighting highway patrol
  6. The size of the car was a factor. Indian cars are much smaller and therefore easier to gauge the far end [ in this case the right body line of the car]. WIthin city traffic, this resulted in me over stepping the lanes often. I also ran over the kerb a couple of times.
  7. The automatic came with P R D and M option. while P R and D were soon obvious as park reverse and drive, M did not ring a bell. When i first drove out of the outlet, with M and D being side by side i shifted into M by mistake and found that the car was stuck to a lower gear ratio and shifted back into D once i realized that I was on M. I did not know what M was until my friend in indianapolis pointed out that it meant Manual Shift and the two arrows were how the driver could control the gear shift manually. This was positive news,beng the manual shift guy i had to try it out and i finally did once i returned to columbus and used it extensively in city conditions.
  8. Driving on manual was real fun, i could not control how much power the car actually received and i could quickly go to higher gears to get into cruise when in low speed limit areas within city. The automatic gear drop when the car stopped also helped when i missed shifting gears so the car would be at 1 when stopped and this helped many times.
  9. Filling gas was another experience. Actually was very easy with a credit card swipe and simple fuelling in. Once full the gun automatically shut off. 
While the 3 days with the car were done without any major incidents, there were some very close calls that did not come to pass, here is a list of some of those interesting situations
  1. The STOP sign is a critical aspect of traffic rules. At one spot as i was peering into the GPS i jumped a stop Sign and had a close shave with a large truck that sped from the right side. Realization was drivers follow rules and may not themselves be tuned to expect the unexpected and react. The driver did nothing but sound horn as he went past!
  2. Indians tend to look to the right while moving ahead in junctions while one needs to look to the left. I nearly hit a car at a mall as i looked to the right and gassed the pedal then realized that there was a car and braked to a halt. The lady in the side seat gave out a yell and nearly jumped out of her seat.
  3. Right of way is to the left coming traffic in roundabouts regardless of the situation. I was part of a train of cars, being the last one and a car from the left just cut into the train causing a near miss. Thats when i realized that rules supercede the situation. I had expected that a train of cars would be let through but that driver did not think that way.
  4. seeing the GPS in city traffic could result in accidents as i learnt by running over a kerb while i was reading the GPS system

Fortunately my indian upbringing which kept my reflexes at high level ensured that these close encounters did not get out of hand. In easch situation I some how ensured that a collision dint happen.

As i returned the car after the 3 days, this time at the downtown outlet, i realised that driving in the USA was far easier than i had imagined even though there were some very important lessons that i had to keep in mind for the next attempt.

I had driven 530 mi in those 3 days of use and found that i had even managed a mileage of 35 Mi/G during this time. 35Mi i felt was not bad at all. Was it the expressway [ which formed 440mi of the total] or was it additionally because i used manual during city traffic?

I also realized how cheap an option driving is in the US. I had done all this driving to indianapolis and back and all the local buzzing around for 35USD of fuel refill.

Powered by ScribeFire.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?