Thu, 16 Oct 2008
Driving in the United States
I will not write about everything I did in Oregon (you can get better insight to the way of life in the US from the point of view of a foreigner in a Linus' blog), but there is one pretty interesting topic: my experience from driving a car in the US. There are several differences for the European driver:
- Automatic gearboxes everywhere. It was impossible to rent a car with manual gearbox. More on it later.
- The speed limits are pretty low. It is not surprising that US people go for a "bigger" car (SUV or large pickups) instead of the car that performs better (i.e. stronger engine and better-tuned chassis). When I asked about the speed limits in the car rental, they said: "I don't know - just follow the car in front of you."
- That said, nobody follows the speed limit - all cars were driving +5 to +10 mph above it. However, the speed variance among the cars was surprisingly low - i.e. everybody was drving +10 mph, there was virtually no overtaking. In our country it is quite common (esp. on multi-lane roads) that somebody follows the speed limit (130 km/h on a motorway), but somebody drives maybe 30 % faster. That said, the fatality per capita is about 50 % higher in the US than in the Czech republic.
- Apart from arrow signs (prof. Donald Knuth has a nice collection:-), there were almost no pictographic signs - everything was explained in words. Even some not so common road marking, like both straight and dashed line in the middle of the road, had an explanation board near its beginning.
- 4-way stop crossings, and the "first come, first serve" principle. Sometimes it was not very clear who came first.
- Traffic lights after the crossings. Several times I nearly missed the red light, simply because I have expected it to be in a different place (i.e. before the crossing).
- The car models were very different. While I have seen several models which can also be seen in Europe (Ford Focus, Chevrolet Aveo, and even one VW Golf), in general the cars in the US are different to those sold in Europe, even when the manufacturer is present on both sides of the Atlantic (like Ford or Toyota).
As for the automatic gearbox, it was pretty interesting. While the machine can change gears definitely faster than human, it cannot predict what the driver wants to do. For example, I when I needed to accelerate in order to overtake, the car (Chevrolet Aveo and then a brand new Chevrolet Cobalt) firstly choked on a current gear for maybe two seconds, then shifted to a lower gear, providing some acceleration, and just before the engine entered the RPM area of the highest power, it decided that it is still not enough, and shifted down once more, taking the engine to the red RPM values :-(
Maybe I would learn how to accelerate properly with an automatic gearbox after some more driving, but for now it is not usable for anything more than slow and careful cruising (which is how people drive in the US). However, I can imagine that an automatic gearbox with some tweaking (probably a "hold the current gear unless RPM is already near maximum" button and a "shift one gear lower" button) would provide the better from both systems.