There are a few key differences between driving in New Zealand and driving in America. Luckily, I'm here to make your transition easier should you ever come to the US.
So, without further ado, How To Drive in America (or at least California):
On the Other side
It's hard to overstate the importance of this one. Almost as hard as making that long left turn past four lanes of traffic shortly after returning from NZ.
Loyal as I am to NZ, various debates on the subject have confirmed the Americans probably have the upper hand here. It is called right side after all.
Wherever the hell you like. Just go. In fact California law explicitly states that unless there is a sign at the intersection telling you not to make a U-Turn, you're good to go.
Your first few days driving in America will be a constant string of U-Turns. Partially, this will be because you are a tourist and hence, by definition, lost and confused. But mostly it will be because American roads go in a straight line for miles and have a dividing wall in the middle.
If the place you want to be is on the left-hand side you don't just turn left and go there. Not unless your vehicle is a bulldozer. No, you keep driving for another mile until the next intersection, and you make a U-Turn. In NZ, a U-Turn is a dirty little trick you employ to get back on track after screwing up the directions. In America, U-Turns are an integral part of the directions.
Use the Freeway to get Everywhere
If you're on the motorway in NZ you're going somewhere. Your destination is far enough away from your current location that the only reasonable way to get there is on the motorway. Once on the motorway you will be there at least 20 minutes.
In the US, you get on the Freeway to buy milk. You get on the freeway to go clothes shopping. You get on the Freeway to visit your friend 2 blocks away. Here is the approximate route we follow to go to the movies:
- Drive to the end of the road, turn left.
- Merge on to the Freeway
- Drive for 2 minutes
- Merge off the Freeway
- Drive into the Mall
Also, be prepared to spend vast amounts of time trying to find the Freeway. The way is usually well signposted, but only once you're already going in the right direction along the right road.
Do NOT miss your exit
Actually, you will miss your exit. Frequently. This is the primary thing that will teach you very quickly not to miss your exit.
One exit is the difference between having Google guide you to your destination, and frantically searching your map for San SomethingSpanish street. It is the difference between Palo Alto (2 million dollar houses and people in polo shirts) and East Palo Alto (imagine walking through Porirua at night wearing a "Bro-Town Sucks" t-shirt while singing "I've got a lovely bunch of Coconuts").
Americans will go to almost any lengths to avoid missing their exit. When combined with six lanes of traffic and what appears to be localized amnesia about where precisely the exits are, this makes for some spectacular driving. You will quickly learn to think of all the space before the yellow safety barrels as a "buffer zone". Sudden swerves are expected.
Do not Accidentally Take an Exit
You will have the following conversation at least twice upon arriving in America:
"Finally! We found the Freeway!"
"Hooray! Hey, what do they mean by 'Exit Only'?"
"The hell?! Where did the Freeway go?!"
Key point to remember: Upon entering the freeway, get out of the right-hand lane as fast as humanly possible, other cars be damned. The right-hand lane has a dangerous habit of disappearing and taking you with it.
Safety in Numbers
You can go as fast as you want on the Freeway... provided everyone else wants to go that fast as well. Want to do 90mph (140kph) in the carpool lane? That's fine, so long as that's what the other cars in the lane are doing.
Memorize this common refrain of the American driver: "They can't give the whole freeway a ticket". Just keep in mind that they can ticket the one lunatic going 70mph (107kph) on an otherwise deserted freeway. That's just not safe.
Honk. It will make you feel better.
Americans seem to earnestly believe that car horns are imbued with magical powers of traffic relief. So when you're stuck in traffic for any longer than a few minutes, just honk the horn. It will make you feel better, and the Americans will all appreciate that you're doing your bit.
Indicating is for Sissies and Tourists
Unless there is a policeman around, your hand stays away from the indicator. Generally, this doesn't matter as much as it would in NZ because American roads are designed such that it is usually obvious what direction you're going to be turning. There's a lane for it. The worrying exception to this rule is on the Freeway, where there's no telling what anyone is going to do (see "Do Not Miss Your Exit").
Google maps (or MapQuest, or Yahoo or whatever company you're throwing your cyber-patriotism behind) is your best friend in the world when going anywhere you've never been before. And America is so freaking huge that this will be roughly 50% of your total driving time.
Don't concern yourself too much with the difficulty of looking at the map and the road at the same time. People will just assume you're changing lanes without indicating.