Driving in California

This is post I had written a loooooooong time back and has been in my drafts folder till now. Why is it published now? Well, I am in the process of writing up another piece on Driving in Chennai and from the looks of it, I guess its going to be another looooong post. So, here’s my first post on the “Driving related bitching” category. 😉

Ok. I have been hearing about this too often that I couldn’t stop myself from ranting about it. This is going to be long one. Brace yourself, readers! 🙂 For those of you who don’t know me, I am an Indian presently in CA, United states. I have been driving around here. And my driving experiences here have been really interesting. I have visited some really interesting places here. By all those escapades, I have learnt some really important lessons in driving. One specific lesson I learnt from all the Desis (Desi means Indian, and desis is the plural) in US is that no matter how you drive, if you are a Desi, you drive wrong. I will explain this through multiple instances in the next few paragraphs. Before that I have to mention that I have driven in India (with valid license), Middle East (with valid license) and now have been driving in the United States for the last 3 months. This is just to assert that I know what I am talking. 🙂

  1. The pedestrian crossing rules –
    When I walk on the road or in a parking lot, I have to be extremely careful as to not disturb the drivers who are in their vehicles. Because here people follow rules and don’t like being cut in. Many a times, Desi fellows with me who have been here in the US longer than me have stopped me and some have even scolded me for crossing the lane when a vehicle was approaching from some 50 metres away.Now, When I am driving the car. Suddenly the table turns around. Now, the Pedestrians have the right of the way. I have to come to Dead Stop if I see a pedestrian coming out of a building. I have to assume that he might just cross the street so I have to slow down and stop.Now, how does this logic change based on where I am? If I am on the street, I have to wait for the cars to drive by till I even think of crossing and if I am in the car I have to let all pedestrians walk by before I even think of approaching even 10 metres near that vicinity.
  2. Entering the traffic from parking –
    Sometimes on the road, I have seen locals cutting into traffic lane from a parked spot and driving of fast. And Desis with me comment – ‘Look how he merged into the traffic? That’s how one should learn to drive – fast, slick and smooth’. Now, on another instance I did the same. Remember, doing this is part of the driving test to get a license in middle east and I am used to this. When I did this, immediately the Desis in my car panicked and started shouting (yes, in its literal sense). What the hell are you doing? Do you think you are in India? Here, you have to follow rules. You don’t get into traffic this way. You don’t cut into a lane this way.I mean, what the hell? If a local does it it’s expert driving and if I do it, I am breaking laws?First of all. My advice to you is – You have been here for so long! Go out and get a license instead of sitting in my car’s backseat trying to teach me drive. If I am at the wheel, trust me with your life or GET OUT. Period! If I didn’t know what I was doing I wouldn’t be taking anyone along and jeopardizing their lives. Granted I may not be the best driver and I may make mistakes. And so far none of them have been ‘grave’ mistakes! So, let my do the job and you all enjoy the ride.
  3. Freeway speeding rules –
    This is the most recent incident. I have noticed that the freeways usually have a speed limit of 65 mph. Now, there was this Desi near me who has been in US for quiet some time now and also has a California driving license too. And, here I was driving on the freeway. As usual I stuck to the second lane from right, which makes it easier for me to take exits. This is very important for me because we drive following maps. Almost no one I met in California actually knows by heart the route to a particular place if the route includes a freeway. Cant really blame them, the roads are a bit confusing and connects a lot of places. So, I has doing 65 mph on the second lane from right and my buddy advised me to move to the left most lane which is supposed to be the high speed lane and go fast. Now, I was already doing 65 mph which was the speed limit in the freeway. So, I asked him ‘Do you have high speed lanes here? I don’t remember seeing any of them. Almost all the lanes in a road – highway, freeway, expressway or whatever you call it, seem to have fixed speed limits on all lanes.’, and he answers ‘its alright, go ahead and stick within the traffic.’. So, I move into the left most lane. But am really scared of speeding above limits, so I stick to 70 mph. Slowly, I find the number of cars driving behind me piling up. My buddy sees this and tells me ‘If you are going to drive like this and block traffic, you will get a ticket!’. 😯 What? I am sticking to the law and why should I get a ticket? He continues, ‘It’s a crime to slow the traffic. If a cop sees a long queue of vehicles behind you, he will pull you over and fine you.’, I answered – ‘Why? I am already doing 70 on a 60 limit road. The vehicles behind me are also now under the limits only. The vehicle in front of me is actually doing 75 to 80, that’s why he is way up front. I am not stalling. I am sticking to the legal speed.’. At this point, my pal starts losing his patience, ‘You just come out of this lane and move to a slower lane if you are afraid. Here things are not like in India’ (there you go! Again, why do you have to bring India into this?). ‘You shouldn’t block anyone’s way. The right most lanes are for slower traffic and you can go on them if you wish to stick to legal limits. If you are in the left most lane, you have to speed up and stick to the car in front of you, maintain the distance and keep moving with the traffic.’, and I reply ‘So does that mean the left most lane is for breaking the law, for illegal driving? If I have to stick with the car in front of me, I have to do 80 myself. And damn sure, I am not going to do that’. So, I move out of the lane and come back to normal speeds.But, I am not ready to let this go as yet ;). I ask him ‘So, If I am on the left most lane and I am doing 80 mph and the cop stops me. Is it a legally valid excuse if I say that I was sticking with the traffic, and I am on the left most lane that’s why I was speeding above the limits so that I don’t block the cars behind me?’, My buddy (now slowly getting more and more irritated over my impertinent(???) questions) answers ‘If you are not blocking the traffic and are moving with the traffic the cops wont stop you even if you are above speed limits. If you are the last guy in the queue, you may get caught (what???). But, if you are somewhere in the middle of the long line of vehicles, then they wouldn’t stop you (that’s getting away with crime. Not playing legal!!!). What they would do is drive to each line and slow down the traffic flow and bring it to normal. They cannot stop hundreds of cars on the freeway and issue tickets to all of them.’, now for me this was absurd reasoning – Its like saying, its ok to rob a bank as long as you are part of a huge group which is breaking the law. Come on, robbing a bank is crime whether you do it alone or with a lot of people. Just like breaking speed limits is a crime whether you are alone or driving along with 100 cars. But, then that’s ok, I needn’t follow that logic, I can always stick to the right most lanes and maintain my speed within comfortable levels, but what really gets on me is the statement that I might be penalised for driving within limits in a lane where everyone is breaking rules, under the reason of blocking traffic when in reality I am slowing down the traffic behind me to stick to legal limits. And I say ‘Its weird, its not like this in any other place I’ve been to. Even in the middle east, we have lanes with different speeds. But those are clearly marked. There are no fixed limits for the routes. The limits are on the lanes.’ And then my buddy loses his temper, he cant take it any more and snaps back ‘If you want to change the system, no use telling me that. I am telling you the rules. Whether you like it or not, as long as you are here, this is the way you drive. If you don’t know driving, get a copy of driving manual from the DMV and read it to learn driving rules here.’WHAT???? I have been driving for 13 years in multiple countries and now you tell me, I don’t know how to drive? WTF? Now, why do Desis get all defensive about the system here. They just cant seem to digest that there may be a flaw in the system. They simply cant take it when somebody makes an open statement on the American way. I have noticed this attitude only in Desis. Americans on the other hand take things much more easy and I have found many of them agreeing when I make statements about the American way of doing things. Statements which can easily be misinterpreted as criticism.All said, I have to admit, this desi I have mentioned in the previous paragraph really helped me learn some of the weird hidden rules of the road. And I am thankful for those. Never the less, I have to tell all desis out here in the United States – ‘People, Listen and Learn. The American driving system is not the perfect system. If you think it is god’s prescription of driving, then you are wrong. You think this is so because you haven’t driven in other countries. The Indian traffic system may be totally f**ked up. And the traffic system here maybe much superior. But, its not perfect.’
  4. Backseat driving –
    I have often noticed that these kind of incidents happen only when you have desis in the car. More often than not, you have all of them sitting beside you and behind you giving out divine advices on the route and driving. And all of them speak so loud giving out different advices that even if you want to ignore them you simply can’t! Many a times (actually one time), when approaching a signal and the light turns Yellow, the guy beside would say ‘Go on, we are near the signal. Get through before it goes red.’. Even though I don’t want to, subconsciously I press the accelerator to speed the vehicle focusing on keeping the car within the speed limits. And that’s when the guy behind shouts – ‘NO!!!!! Don’t do that. BRAKE!!!! BRAKE!!!! You’ll NEVER make it. STOP. STOP!!!’ and the I immediately take my foot of the pedal for a fraction of a second before realizing its too late and I accelerate again. By now the light is already red. And ‘I’ have run the light!!!! Now, all the guys in the car go – ‘Oh my! What the hell have you done. You have ran the light!!!!! The cop is going to be here anytime!’. I open my mouth to explain. And they go – ‘Shut up and drive! You have already messed up. Now, concentrate on driving. And WATTTCHHHH out, there’s car in front of you. AND there’s a car on your right side…. And there’s another car on your left! Damn it, don’t cross the lanes!!!! ’.I have screwed up? WTF? Phew!!!! I really thank god for that trait of patience he has blessed me with. If it had not been that, I would pulled the vehicle off the road, flagged down a cab and packed all of my passengers back home in it. But not before banging their heads (at least some of them) on the car’s hood.Now, did anyone of them realize that the whole incident happened because the driver’s thoughts were interrupted by their damn driving instructions? That the driver’s calculation and decision taking was impaired because all of them were shouting instructions to drive? That the passenger’s panic really gets transferred to the driver. I don’t think so. I don’t think any one of them ever did understand that! Now, I really cant tell them all this to their face. They would just say, I am trying to justify my screw up. Well, guess what? Maybe I am. And its because its NOT my screw up!

Is all these so important as to rant for so long? Yeah! If you have been driving in car full of backseat drivers or if you are a desi who has taken control of the wheel with other desis in the car, then you know how it feels. You know why I am ranting like this :). Once again, to all desis mentioned here-in. If you are reading this. Don’t take it personal guys! I enjoy your company very much. Don’t think twice before getting into the vehicle :D. Well, I’d really appreciate it if you all just sit back and relax.


For all of you non-Americans who wants to drive in California, here’s some useful info.

  1. In the state of California, you can drive a rented car, If you have a valid driving license from any country in the world.
  2. Try and have a guy with you as a navigator when you travelling through unknown territory. Make sure that this guy is of a calm composed nature who doesn’t panic even in the event of trouble. Also, this person should be able to focus and concentrate on the street signs and routes rather than concentrating on how the driver is driving.
  3. Use the online mapping tools liberally. Always, use googlemaps.com, yahoomaps.com, mapquest.com or any other online maps for planning out your route before driving.
  4. Make sure that your navigator knows how to read the map and has a clear idea of the route before starting the trip.
  5. Listen to NO ONE except your navigator. If you make a mistake, you are on your own. So, you rather be making your mistakes than letting others commit your mistakes for you.
  6. When driving, focus on driving rather than finding routes. Leave that task to the navigator.
  7. If you lose the route. DON’T panic. Keep driving and give time for your navigator to figure how to get back in route. And when if he is taking too long, pull out into a gas place and ask them.
  8. No matter what others say. Keep within the speeding limit and drive at a speed you are comfortable at. The time isn’t important, the destination isn’t important. What’s important is lives of your passengers (that’s the first priority) and then your life.
  9. At high speeds, the vehicle is even more difficult to control. So do not drive at high speeds till you are completely at home with the vehicle you are driving.
  10. Always keep handy your driving license, passport copy and insurance papers.And the most important point –
  11. Read http://www.caldrive.com carefully and completely. The site has invaluable information on the driving rules and systems in California. That is the ONLY detailed info I could find on driving in California! So, consider that as your bible.

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  1. #1 by Sandeep Sharma on September 28, 2011 - 10:19 pm

    Nice Blog.how true about the ranting desis.. cudnt agree with you more…

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