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In Los Angeles, you really can’t survive without wheels – even if you’re only here for a short time. In New York (and other cities with good public transport) it’s perhaps a little easier, but just watch a few commercials on TV and you’ll realize: Americans love their cars.
1. Paperwork, Please
Full U.K. licenses are valid for a year after arrival, but you’ll need to have had it for a least a year (and be over 21 or even 25) to hire a car. International Driving Permits (such as issued by the AA) are useful in tandem, though I only ever got blank stares when I produced it. As a resident, you’re probably going to have to make getting a state-issued license a priority.
2. Licensing Laws
Avoid a long wait and make an appointment at your local motor vehicle office (generically known as the DMV) for a temporary license (which lasts 60 days or more) while you prepare for the driving test. It’s also worth taking a lesson or two with a licensed instructor or a friend (I found left turns in big junctions terrifying!).
3. Testing Times
In California at least, the consensus among expats is that the driving test is easier than in the U.K. Arriving at the appointed time, you’ll undergo a vision test and a short multiple choice written test (buy your state’s driving handbook!) before you take to the road with the examiner in either an automatic or a “stick shift” (manual). Failing either part of the test isn’t a big issue though; re-takes can be arranged quickly.
4. Buy American?
GM, Ford and Chrysler fly the stars and stripes proudly, but ironically it’s often “foreign” (Japanese) cars like Honda and Toyota that get top marks. If you’re looking to buy there will be a car lot near you, but you can also check carmax.com. If buying a used car, make sure the seller gives you their “pink slip” or Certificate of Title (a proof of ownership listing the license plate number, year, model, vehicle ID number, last smog test etc).
5. On The Right
Americans drive on the right, which means that the steering wheel is on the left. Thankfully, it only takes a little while to get used to this, though I still go to the “wrong” side of the car every now and then. Other changes include “Yield” instead of “Give Way”, a definite lack of roundabouts, separate lanes in the center of the road – in both directions – for turning left across traffic, and a “Stop” sign? It really means stop. On the plus side, there’s no heavy annual exam like the MOT; judging by some of the cars I have seen in L.A. it seems the only regular requirement is a smog check.
6. Slow Down There!
One of the first things you notice is that speed limits are different – lower – than in the U.K. In California for example it’s 55 on two lane highways, while a new toll road in Texas has been mandated for an 85mph limit. Another big difference? The fact you can turn right at a red/stop light (unless otherwise indicated, and of course only if it’s safe).
A topic that’s discussed almost as much as the weather is in England, it currently stands around about $4.12 here in California, though (Hawaii aside) most places are cheaper. Prices can vary from gas station to gas station, and they change frequently – especially during holidays or if the day of the week has a “y” in it.
8. Vegas, baby! Vegas!
The road trip is something that’s quintessentially American. Driving for hours – and even days – stopping only at remote truck stops, eating chewy beef jerky and chugging energy drinks is virtually a tradition. Why fly when it’s only 38 hours drive? The Easy Rider–era Route 66 across the country may have more or less gone, but a road trip is something you have to do. The four-hour impulsive trip taken from L.A. to Vegas by the guys in Swingers? Happens all the time.
You’ll see that many restaurants and even bars offer free soft drinks to designated (sober) drivers, and DUI (Driving Under the Influence) is taken very seriously. Getting caught could mean arrest, license disqualification (and a subsequent rise in insurance), community service, a fine, even mandatory Traffic School. Moreover, in nearly all states it’s an offense to have an “open container” of alcohol in the car; even that corked bottle of wine you’re taking home from a dinner party is technically illegal, so put it in the trunk.
America is home to around 260m cars, and in many cities that means parking can be tough to find. Parking meters are probably going to be 15 minute increments in your life, so make sure you have always have quarters in the glove box, even if many meters today are credit card-friendly.
In cities like L.A. that have valet parking, giving your keys to a young chap in a waistcoat and having him park in exactly the same place you could park (if you were prepared to walk a block or two) is common at restaurants, hotels and events. There’s a fee for this of course, plus the obligatory tip – and the hope having a stranger in your car will turn out okay – and while some people always valet as a status thing, many utterly refuse to do it.
Do you drive in the U.S.?
See more posts by James Bartlett
James Bartlett writes about travel, film and the weird and wonderful side of living in L.A. He has been published in over 90 magazines and newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, Los Angeles Magazine, Angeleno, Hemispheres, Delta Sky, Westways, Variety and Bizarre. He is also a contributor to BBC radio and RTE in Ireland, and is the author of Gourmet Ghosts - Los Angeles, a "history and mystery" guide to bars and restaurants in L.A. - details can be found at www.gourmetghosts.com.