[GOVERNMENT WARNING: To all individuals of certain nationalities, this post comes with a health warning: do not read if you are likely to suffer individualised insult, offence or paranoia when reading statements below about persons of your nationality. The blogger wishes to advise that statements made below of an overgeneralised, biased and unbalanced nature are in no way aimed at, referring to, or representative of any individual friends or acquaintances she has of said nationalities. Poison S2 - not to be taken personally!]
North American drivers. Well I guess I'm one of them for the time being so before I start dis-ing them I should acknowledge this. But this post has been coming for a while, and though I'm tired I'm gonna get it off my chest.
(Gonna - see I'm already talking like an American!)
Firstly, Oregon drivers. Very considerate, especially of pedestrians. I could not get used to cars waving to me to cross at uncontrolled intersections where in all my past experiences, you would be mad to step in front of a moving vehicle. These drivers seemed to think I was loopy if I didn't. A good way to out yourself as a foreigner in Portland: stand on the sidewalk and wait for a break in the traffic!
Seattle drivers: a little more fast paced than in Portland, but still pretty courteous. Also doing the give way to pedestrian thing.
British Columbia, Canada, now here was my real shock. After years of stereotyping being drilled into my brain ie US Americans are loud, arrogant, belligerent and think they own the world, and yet I met with unfailing courtesy in the US states of Washington and Oregon, both in and out of cars. Compare with the stereotypically more gentle, refined Canadians, who were always more than slightly piqued when I met them in New Zealand and mistook them for Americans (like NZer's being mistaken for Aussies, but we're just used to it).
Anyway, we don't even get across the border into Canada before meeting the "Canadian uptight" - starting with the Canadian customs guard. He was dressed in black. His interrogation of James when I stupidly said he was going to Canada for work not a holiday was a case in point. He didn't smile. And I thought Canadians were supposed to be the friendly ones! (mind you, I'm sure it was Canadians who told me this before I went there).
Now, as an aside, I have long suspected that the general personality type of the the human inhabitants of a country can be inferred by observing their native birdlife - specifically, their vocalisations. So in New Zealand, you have sweetly tweeting, self effacing little creatures that are easily preyed upon and aren't too great at sticking up for themselves. In Australia, well, you get Galahs, Cockatoos, Kookaburras, Rainbow Parakeets, and Currawongs, to name a few, and all are loud and raucous and strident in their viewpoints, like many Aussies I came across in my time in Sydney.
So, it was interesting to test this theory in the US, where on day one I saw some lovely quiet, polite, medium voiced ducks and scaup. But then there were all these big loud, overbearing, honking things. Canada Geese. Hey, that can't be right, I thought to myself. Canada's birds must be the quiet demure ones surely, if my theory of birds and their respective nation's human personalities are to be believed.
Then I drove in Canada, and discovered not only their geese honk. Those Canadian drivers love to lean on their horns at every opportunity. Even the slightest provocation ie sitting one nanosecond at an intersection when a light has gone green is sufficient to attract a parping from behind. These drivers were stressed. They were in a hurry. I was holding them up. Again and again. They could not even wait for me to park in a quiet suburban street for two seconds without giving me a blast.
Then on the other hand maybe it was because I had Oregon licence plates. Maybe they thought I ought to know better. Maybe they hated me because they thought I was American.
But in any case, I saw several grumpy, stroppy Canadians. When did I realise I was back in the US? When people started giving me a cheery, unprompted "Have a nice day" at the end of every human exchange.
So all my stereotypes about north Americans have been turned upside down.
California driving is something else again. As James said, he wanted me to drive somewhere else before I drove in California. All I can say is, if I had taken my first turn at the wheel on the wrong side of the road (and by this I mean, the right side of the road, which is the wrong side for me) on an LA freeway, I think I would have freaked out completely and refused to drive for the rest of the time in North America. It's not hard, exactly...the roads are all big and wide, and you can go really fast on them most of the time. But what you realise is that on this smooth, elongated, intertwining series of on ramps and off ramps that get you from A to B over however many hours you drive, one momentary lapse of concentration, and at the speed you are going, you a going to make one hell of a mess, and you are dead. One tiny swerve, one moment of panic, one stray into another lane in your blind spot - you're dead.
It is incredible to me how thousands upon thousands of people drive all these freeways day after day and that it isn't just carnage. In a way it is easier to drive fast and smooth on these big roads. It is easy driving. But it is also extremely boring. It is totally unlike any driving in New Zealand, where almost no roads have that number of lanes, and where they do, they are so busy, and/or run for such short periods of time, you can't get into that mesmerising rhythm of autodrive.
So what I've learned in the US is that driving fast feels safer than driving slow, and keeping out of the lanes where people don't keep even speed makes the driving much safer. It's the turkeys who keep putting their brakes on that put people in danger.
And speaking of turkeys, there have been a few moments with a few North American drivers. Like the ones who change lanes right in front of you without signalling. And so far, I've had one person try and change into my lane on a freeway, obviously not seeing I was there, and another just today in a suburban boulevard where the driver just drove into my lane as if I wasn't there. Then there was the turkey yesterday who sat on his horn because he was trying to cut into the freeway from a slip road when I was already on it, with someone else overtaking me and coming into my lane from the other side - like, where else was I supposed to go? I was there first, you guys!
So far, the best drivers have been in Portland, the most aggressive drivers have been in Canada, and the most dangerous drivers have been in Southern California.