California's Highway 1, which re-opened this week after a 14-month closure because of mudslides, means that again the West Coast's most epic road trip beckons all comers in time for the summer peak.
Earlier this month, after six weeks of car-free travelling, I arrived in Seattle and hired a car from Hertz. It's a new Ford Focus, which is good value, because although it falls into the cheapest "compact" category, it seems to be miles ahead of the other cars in its range for looks and driveability (including a large satnav display). It's extremely efficient, with the tank costing US$38 (Dh139) to fill.
Despite the general ease of driving in the United States and the similarities with the UAE – driving on the right-hand side, wide roads, cheap fuel – there are things worth noting if you have spent years driving in the Gulf. Here are my top 10 tips.
1. Phones and speed. As it is in the UAE using your phone at the wheel is banned (in most states), and with potentially stiff penalties, don't risk it. Ditto speeding – while there aren't many cameras, patrols will appear out of nowhere and penalties issued.
2. No cutting in. It's easy, especially if it's your first time in a place, to be in the wrong lane for where you want to go. While this isn't an issue if there's light traffic, in queues of heavy traffic, cutting into the front of a long line may leave you sandwiched between an angry guy in a pick-up truck and a bellowing lorry. Keep an eye on your satnav and move to the correct lane as soon as you can.
3. Turning left and right. Unless otherwise signposted, cars can turn right on a red light after they have come to a complete stop, so long as there are no pedestrians or other cars in the way. Likewise, you can normally turn left on a green light, so long as there are no other vehicles coming towards you. Look at the road, not just the lights.
4. Four-way stops and roundabouts. In California and Oregon, many residential areas operate a four-way junction system, whereby each car arriving at the junction, or those at two of those entries to the cross-over point, must stop, check for traffic, and proceed in order of whoever arrived first. If you drive through a four-way crossing (signed with a big red stop sign) without stopping, not only do you risk a fine, but also a collision. Take extra care at night. Roundabouts impose strict lane discipline. Other drivers will become irate if you use the wrong lane.
5. Same-way parking. Don't do as I have and get a ticket for parking in the "wrong direction" on a main road. Only park in the direction all the other cars on the same side of the road as you are driving.
6. Signage blindness. Partly thanks to the complexity of its road and parking systems, roads in the US can have a confusing amount of signage. If in doubt, proceed slowly and pull over in a safe spot if necessary. If parking rules are not clear, park somewhere else.
7. Residential parking. While your satnav might direct you to a clear area, some of these operate at tow-away zones. If in doubt, ask.
8. Fill up. On a long trip, fill up as soon as your petrol tank is three-quarters empty. In remote areas, you might not find a fuel stop.
9. Petrol prices vary. While the national average is about $3 a gallon (about 80 cents or Dh3 per litre, compared to about Dh2.5 in the UAE), filling up at a supermarket gas station can cut the cost by 25 cents a litre.
10. If you want someone to pump your gas for you, go to Oregon. In the state, it's still illegal to self-serve.
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