Driving in heavy CA traffic
July 23, 2011 11:05 AM   Subscribe

I am a 52 y/o woman with a perfect driving record but for the last 20 years I have only driven in Idaho--Boise is the biggest traffic I have seen in the last 20 years. We may be moving to the Fresno area and I will want to drive the freeways to LA and SF and be confident about it. I need advice because I have really developed some anxiety when I think about it. Last weekend my husband and I rented a car and drove from the Fresno airport to a smaller city nearby and I was even nervous as a passenger when he had to use the GPS to find our ways on the freeways. We had to keep up our speed even when we did not know when/where to turn off. The Hertz GPS magellan was not that good but it still looked nerve-wracking to me! What advice can you give me? I would love to be able to take off from Fresno and drive to LA for the day sometime. How will I get confident about this type of driving? It seems the traffic goes much faster than I am used to and people are changing lanes faster and with less notice too. I would be smart enough to know not to head to LA during the rush hours but even in lower traffic I am experiencing anxiety even thinking about it! Thanks for your help!
posted by seekingsimplicity to Travel & Transportation around California (21 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
You will be fine! Just don't worry about what other people think and obey the laws. :) Really! I have psyched myself up to drive there and in Manhattan and Chicago, etc., and it all worked out! There are tons of other ladies and gents in your exact situation and they make it work. You will, too. No big deal! GPS will help but think of all the people who do it without GPS! Think of how many make it work without knowing English. You'll be fine!
posted by Punctual at 11:19 AM on July 23, 2011

Immersion in a scary situation could be the best and most effective way to get you to being comfortable with it. You just have to do it. I grew up in LA, was terrified to try to drive once I was old enough, but now I feel like I'm an extremely good driver because I have been in a range of traffic situations where I have learned a lot about how to be assertive but not dangerous to other people (now, if only the rest of LA were able to do that...).

As for the speed/pressure to go faster, when traffic is moving faster, stay in the Number 1 or 2 (far right and next-to-far-right) lanes and just let people go around you. Cultivate an attitude of just being focused on what you need to do, and in particular, don't pay any attention to people who ride your back bumper because they're trying to make you get freaked out and go faster--these people are assholes and you are well within your rights (and well-advised) to just ignore them, because they can go around you, and it's not your fault they're late or in a hurry or whatever, so you don't need to absorb the stress of it. I think you will be surprised, though, at how much you're not going to need to worry about speed because you'll be going rather slowly along with lots of other cars, much of the time in LA. ;)

Your anxiety may actually even help you be more alert to the actions of other drivers so that you can avoid their stupid maneuvers, and help you be more aware of your surroundings and the quick lane changes, etc. that you mentioned.

I used to use a TomTom GPS, and it was great because it tells you your instructions well ahead of when you need to perform the action. (Now I just use Maps on my iPhone, because it includes traffic info and estimates of how long it will take me to get somewhere in current traffic conditions, although it does not talk to me to tell me where to go.)
posted by so_gracefully at 11:22 AM on July 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

I recommend starting by splitting up all of these different anxieties. You're worried about getting lost, you're worried about going fast, you're worried about aggressive drivers, AND you're worried about having general confidence.

1) The easiest thing to do is to get used to going faster. My mom, when teaching me how to do this, took me on US highways where the speed limit was 65mph. Since you're in Idaho, just practice going long distance on I-84. It took me about thirty hours of consistent high-speed driving (trips longer than 30 minutes at a time) before that stopped freaking me out. Remember you can do a trip through one of your nearby states with a "no speed limit during the day" rule.

2) Do something about your anxiety. Breathing tricks, mantras, etc. You can practice when you're still worried about going fast. When you're less anxious, all the rest of the stuff is easier. I find that classical music reduces my road anxiety.

3) Embrace getting lost. Be confident about pulling off at a random exit, stopping at McDonald's, and looking at your map. Enjoy the freedom and secret "woot we live in the future" thrill that comes from telling the GPS system to recalculate from your present position. Make a habit of looking for easy exits to use for this purpose (it's best if you see a Wal-Mart, Best Buy, or Home Depot kind of sign, because there's a really good chance of getting a place to park and an easy route back onto the highway.) Invest in a Thomas Guide.

4) Aggressive drivers are the hardest thing to get used to safely, so focus on this part last. Stay in the right lanes. Ignore looks and aggressive weaving. Let yourself miss exits if it means avoiding a confrontation. Try to stick to the speed of the traffic around you, but accept that there are far more crazy people on the road than you're used to.

Lastly: you don't have to take the main, often insanely busy, road to get from one place to another. There's no reason to ever, ever ever take the 101 through Los Angeles if you're nervous: there are other ways of getting places.
posted by SMPA at 11:27 AM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

In terms of speed, go with the flow of traffic and you will be fine. You will get used to everything quickly.
posted by twblalock at 11:31 AM on July 23, 2011

The San Francisco Bay Area has some of the politest urban drivers I've seen. Onramp merges are generally a thing of beauty - people let you in, you let them in. It's quite civilized.

For Fresno to LA (and SF to LA) people do haul ass. Just find a truck in the right lane and follow it at a respectful distance and you won't have to worry about the high speed drivers and lane changers too much.

I'll bet that after a few months, you get used to the pace of driving in Fresno (which is IMO not that bad).

As for LA and SF, driving gets more complex because cities are more complex, so plan out your route ahead of time. You can even do a 'drivethrough' using Google Maps on this site to get a feel for the route.

Google Earth driving simulator

Good luck!
posted by zippy at 11:52 AM on July 23, 2011

You will be fine! I've been driving in L.A. for almost 20 years and can tell you a couple of things that will make learning to drive here a little easier...

-Stay in the right hand lanes and ignore anyone riding your bumper. You'll work up to being more comfortable at faster speeds.

-Avoid making your first trips in L.A. on a Saturday. Seriously, I don't know what it is, but lots of people tend to drive like nutbars on the weekends. I find that morning rush hour drivers are quite disciplined in terms of letting people in, not darting in and out of lanes, etc.

-Don't attempt navigating through downtown right away. You sometimes have to get across several lanes relatively quickly (hello, 101 to 110 interchange!), which isn't a big deal, but for now, just remove the navigation factor. You have enough to think about.

-Dear God, how I hate the Pasadena Fwy. The north end of the 110 is probably not a great choice for a new or nervous driver, as it is two lanes, one which handles traffic merging from impossibly short onramps and the other, which handles all the people who are frustrated at the slow people in the other lane.

-Leave plenty of space in front of you. Lots of people don't do this.

-If there's someplace in L.A. that you know you'll be going regularly, get to know that area and build up your navigation skills from there. It will get easier, I promise.

-Do you have AAA? It might be worthwhile to sign up for a couple of hours of driving instruction through them, just so you can do some driving with a non-family member. Explain your situation; it won't be the first time they've heard it.
posted by corey flood at 11:55 AM on July 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: OMG these answers are all so helpful! Thank you ALL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
posted by seekingsimplicity at 11:58 AM on July 23, 2011

My mom (not to make you feel old :) used to be real nervous about driving in Chicago. It's a lot different than the downstate driving where she's spent all her life. But then something clicked: the drivers in Chicago may be assholes, but they're consistent assholes. Now she just always assumes the guy in front/to the side will do the most dickish thing possible and prepares for it. It's a more defensive driving tactic than she usually uses, but when you're always expecting the unexpected it's easier to deal with.

She's doing much better! Still prefers to take the train up though.
posted by sbutler at 12:13 PM on July 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

Another vote for you'll do great and have lots of fun adventures here in California.

But I am going to go against the advice to stay in the right lanes (the "slow" lanes). The problem with that is that there is more action in those lanes with people getting on and off the freeway, and more likelihood that you will be splitting off on a different freeway than the one you wish to be on.

My recommendation is that after getting on the freeway, move to lane 2 (the 2nd from the middle not counting the carpool lane) and cruise along at whatever speed that lane is moving along at - leaving plenty of space in front of you, but keeping up with the flow of traffic. It will be the most relaxing of the lanes.

The carpool lane is also good because you don't have traffic merging in and out except at designated spots, but you also have to feel comfortable about merging out at those designated spots. Also the carpool lanes are expected to go fast so again you will be expected to keep up with the car in front of you (but leave plenty of room). Southern California drivers think HOV = autobahn.
posted by Edward L at 12:15 PM on July 23, 2011

Break it down in to small trips at first. Learn your way around Fresno. Then go from Fresno to Visalia and back, which is a bout 45 - 60 min. each way. Do that a few times, or go to Bakersfield, Modesto, etc. L.A. is more than 200 miles away, and making that into a daytrip as you mention is setting yourself up for driving while exhausted/stressed.
posted by BlahLaLa at 12:21 PM on July 23, 2011

Zippy, we must live in parallel universes. My experience driving here is not nearly so civilised as you've described it.

I prefer the slower pace in the PNW (seattle/portland). But that being said, here are my tips:
1. Always plan on leaving 15 mins earlier than you need to. That way, you won't be stressed about missing on/off ramps (it will happen! The freeways are a clusterfuck here)
2. Drive the speed limit and let the assholes pass you. The number of SUVs/trucks that have been within 2 inches of my bumper wanting to pass is in the thousands now. Don't let them push you to go faster than you want.
3. Stay as far away from 18-wheeler/cargo trucks as you can. They often are doing long-haul trips through the BA/LA and they are dangerous drivers.
4. Maintain good stopping distance. Traffic goes from 75 to a dead stop all the time. Be prepared.
5. Get some relaxing music. That helps. Or good podcasts that keep your mind engaged so you're not thinking about the crazy motorists around you.

You will adjust. It will take time, but eventually you won't get lost as much (I still do and I've lived here 8 years). Breathe. You will be fine!
posted by guster4lovers at 12:24 PM on July 23, 2011

I grew up in a suburban location and moved to San Francisco. At first, the volume of traffic was overwhelming. I take the approach that I should try to mentally identify the drivers around me and try to predict their behavior. There may be 100 or more vehicles visible to you at a time, but there's a small number of vehicles that deserve your focus.

Some California drivers neglect their responsibilities for turning on their headlights at dusk or in the rain, using turn signals when changing lanes, or getting into the exit lane appropriately early enough to avoid inconveniencing other drivers. While I may drive in the two rightmost lanes of a freeway normally, there are sections of the freeways where I will move to the left because I expect a lot of last-minute lane changes by the drivers around me. Examples are 280 south near the 380 junction; 280 north near the 1 north junction.

Regarding lane numbers: in my experience, CHP (California Highway Patrol) and KCBS (an AM station based in San Francisco with traffic reports every 10 minutes) number freeway lanes starting from the left.
posted by germdisco at 12:29 PM on July 23, 2011

I grew up in a small town in Ohio where the scariest thing going was the "expressway" which was two lanes of moderate traffic in either direction. I was in my thirties when I moved to the Chicago area and began driving in the heavy, fast-moving (well, on the rare occasions I'm lucky enough not to be inching along) more aggressive traffic.

I was nervous at first but got used to it surprisingly quickly. I agree with those above who say to stay in the right lane until your comfort level increases. Also, leave plenty of time to get where you are going and just expect that you will miss your exits on a fairly regular basis. I can't tell you how many times I've had to get off on the next exit and circle back onto the highway, or use the map to navigate the side streets from the wrong exit to my destination. I managed to deal with this in the days before cell phones and GPS, so I'm sure it is much less of a big deal nowadays.

And yes, I totally do what sbutler's mom does. I'm always keeping an eye on other drivers and imagining what is the stupidest thing they could do, and watching out for it. My husband says he does the same thing, and also that he tries to never, ever do anything that might surprise another driver. He's scrupulous about using his turn signals, makes sure to brake early, etc.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 12:34 PM on July 23, 2011

I recommend driving around way late at night when there's no traffic so you can explore and just get familiar with the streets and highway interchanges without people around. No one cares if you're going 40 MPH in the right lane if there's five other lanes and only that many cars.

It's really good to know if to get from Highway A to Highway B you need to cross three lanes of traffic within a mile, or if your highway exit is on the left or the right as one highway splits into two, or how your exit lines up with city streets. Also, look on the map for popular roads that have weird angles or possible intersections and go driving on them during low traffic times. Knowing them ahead of time takes most of the anxiety out.

It doesn't have to mean lots of free time on your hands - I've done this three times in nearly a year of living in LA and am much more comfortable with the crazy road system now.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 12:48 PM on July 23, 2011

As a NY driver, yes, urban driving is different than driving elsewhere. I strongly recommend that you do not use GPS. It's distracting and annoying. Look at a map the night before, plan your route, memorize it, write it down in large print on paper and have one person refer to it as you drive. Several people I know have GPS units in there car and end up paying more attention to the stupid box than they do the road and miss their turns anyhow, then scramble to follow the GPS as it recalculates every three seconds because you aren't where it thinks you should be.
posted by Brian Puccio at 1:02 PM on July 23, 2011

I live in the Silicon Valley. I moved here from Moscow, Idaho, and learned to drive in the Treasure Valley across the river from Ontario, Oregon.

I drive in San Francisco all the time. I've driven in Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose, Seattle, Portland, all much bigger cities than Boise. You'll have no problem at all. San Francisco is a little tighter and it takes much longer to find parking.

It also doesn't snow here. Watch out for the roads after the rain. They get surprisingly slick, because there are more cars dripping oil onto the roadways, which comes back up to the surface after the rain. Still, it's nothing like hitting black ice and fighting for control of your car on I-84.

It'll take a little getting used to, but it seems far more scary than it really is.

Welcome to California!
posted by phoebus at 2:28 PM on July 23, 2011

Two other things to think about when you're driving: can the other drivers see you? If something goes wrong in front of you, do you have a plan?

In other words, be aware of other people's blind spots as well as your own. You can't avoid being around a lot of other cars, but if you find yourself riding in someone else's blind spot for more than a moment, you can usually slow down or speed up just a bit to get out of it. That way if they're an idiot and don't check their blindspots and swerve over unexpectedly, you're not in the way.

Likewise, whenever possible, avoid getting stuck between two immovable and/or enormous objects. Avoid situations where you're boxed in on both sides: between a guard-rail and a tractor trailer truck, for example, or driving directly between two other cars for longer than it takes to pass one of them. If you avoid situations like those, then if one person does something dumb, you'll have more space to react. Relatedly, periodically check what your options are. I don't do it in a paranoid way, but when I'm driving in heavy traffic, I run through scenarios in my head: do I have a place to swerve if there's an accident right in front of me and I can't stop in time? If that person decides to change lanes in front of me right now, will they have enough space to not hit me?

Ty to get into the habit of periodically looking as far down the highway as you can; don't get completely distracted by the maniac drivers right around you. When you look down the road, you can see if there are suddenly a lot of brake-lights even if the people directly in front of you haven't slowed down yet, or if there's road construction coming up and therefore lane changes, etc.
posted by colfax at 2:31 PM on July 23, 2011

Try, I meant. "Try to get into the habit of..."
posted by colfax at 2:33 PM on July 23, 2011

On preview, I came here to tell you exactly what Brian Puccio says above:
I'm about your age, but I live in the crowded northeast and so have a bit of experience in big-city driving - and I would advise you to minimize your use of GPS until you're comfortable in traffic.

These are two distinct problems here:
"Becoming 'at one' with the flow of traffic"
"Giving part of your attention over to the GPS' instructions".

The two problems interact.

Use the GPS when you're pulled over, and then shut off the audio and pay attention to traffic. THEN, after days/weeks/months, learn to pay attention to the GPS.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 4:25 PM on July 23, 2011

I agree with Brian Puccio too, forget about GPS. If you're not comfortable reading maps it's time to learn. If I'm going somewhere unfamiliar I check the maps and then I write it all down in big letters that I can see without having to put on my reading glasses- I'm a decade older than you.

I moved 6 years ago from a rural area, an island with 45mph maximum speeds, to a major metropolitan area, I had an insane 35 mile commute on interstates where everyone was going over 80. It was really scary at first but I got used to it, figured out quickly which lanes I needed to be in, and even figured out alternative city street routes if traffic got too jammed. I did get lost a bit, but like someone above said, I embraced it.

Enjoy your new adventure!
posted by mareli at 6:12 PM on July 23, 2011

I was in a similar situation a few years ago. At first I didn't drive in our new city; after a week or so I drove but only on quiet streets. I gradually took on busier and busier roads. Now I'm fine.

I endorse using a GPS. I don't get the "OH CRAP I MISSED MY EXIT NOW WHAT" panic I used to, because I know that within a few seconds Eddie Izzard will have found another route for me.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:27 PM on July 23, 2011

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