How to get the most out of driving a car regularly?
July 19, 2007 6:10 AM   Subscribe

How do you deal with or adapt to Car Culture? Tips on driving, things to do in/with the car, strategies to deal with traffic, autos, parking, life-on-the-road in general please. Also: any specific Southern California driving/car advice.

So, I'm moving to east-of-LA from NYC. I've lived without a car for nearly 15 years: in those years, I've driven, on average, one day a month, with some years where I've driven once or twice. Now I'll be driving every day, for my commute, errands, social activities, etc.

I've narrowed my list of cars to buy based on Consumer reports and trawling the web, bought a GPS that reads audiobooks to me, have my insurance lined up. I'm a confident and reasonably skilled driver, but will happily take advice from seasoned veterans about techniques for driving. More specifically:

What other things can I do now and what good habits can I get into to make driving efficient, fun, safe and a positive rather than a negative?

I'd be particularly interested if anyone knows of resources/articles on how-to-live-life-behind-wheels-nicely.
posted by lalochezia to Travel & Transportation (29 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Some ideas:

1. Take a defensive driving course if you can.
2. Despite the GPS, keep a few local maps in your car.
3. If you have a cell phone, get a hands-free device.
4. Despite the hands-free device, avoid cell phone calls except in emergencies.
5. Audiobooks are a lifesaver. So is sattelite radio.
6. For a long commute, a travel cup of coffee or tea is nice to have.
7. Polarized Sunglasses are wonderful for driving on sunny days.

Also, keep the following in your car:

- A set of jumper cables *
- A small first aid kit *
- A good, bright flashlight with extra batteries
- Glass cleaner & paper towels
- A leatherman type of utility tool

* If you have them, you probably won't need them. If you don't have them, odds are you will need them.
posted by tastybrains at 6:26 AM on July 19, 2007

At a point where I was in a fairly hellish commute, I negotiated with my employer to shift my work hours earlier. This meant that I was on the road at a time when there were far fewer other vehicles. This alone made the biggest difference for me.
posted by plinth at 6:28 AM on July 19, 2007

Once you start driving, you'll wonder how you ever lived without a car. When you get somewhere early, you can relax in your car with the a/c and radio until you have to go inside. You can keep healthy snacks in your car, bottles of water, a change of clothes in case you get stranded at your SO's home or on the road somewhere.

Get satellite radio. The traffic here in LA is horrendous and the satellite radio will really help you pass the endless hours on the freeway. Get air fresheners for you car. I have a rear-view mirror extension so that I can see 180 degrees behind me. It's great because I don't have any blind spots. You can see a car creeping up behind you that your rear-view and side-view mirrors don't reflect.

Get a license plate frame that reflects your personality.

Don't be in a hurry. There are red light cameras everywhere now. Every peccadillo is now captured on film and you'll get fined.

Avoid drive-through fast food. You'll get fat. Keep nuts, pretzels and dried fruit in your car.

Always assume there's going to be unexpected traffic, so leave early. Google maps now allows you to see traffic on the freeways. If you really have a long commute, subscribe to and enter your driving route. It will tell you how long it's going to take to get there, whether all freeway lanes are open, and how fast traffic is moving.

Embrace your new car. You have to have one in LA, so you better get used to it.
posted by HotPatatta at 6:32 AM on July 19, 2007

Buy a Thomas Guide. You'll never get lost if you have one. And if you do get lost, it will help you get back on track.
posted by HotPatatta at 6:33 AM on July 19, 2007

One thing.. is that, in my experience of driving in various places around the world, even though LA has a lot of traffic, it's actually some of the easiest traffic in the world to drive in. Angelinos seem to have adapted to the constant traffic well, and therefore drive pretty well too. I'd rather spend an hour moving around in thick LA traffic than even light traffic in other cities around the globe.
posted by wackybrit at 6:35 AM on July 19, 2007

Explore all the highways, byways, city streets, neighborhoods, etc. to build your own mental map of the area so that if you're stuck in traffic, you'll know of options. Sometimes when the freeway is backed up I'll take off on other roads. While the drive may take longer, the peace of mind I get from moving steadily down the road rather than sitting in stop and go traffic is worth it to me. Plus, the scenery is often more pleasant.
posted by hoppytoad at 6:49 AM on July 19, 2007

Best answer: Something that most people don't do, but I found made driving on the freeway in heavy traffic a lot easier: When traffic starts to get backed up (like, to a near stop), resist the impulse to pull right up to the car in front of you. Instead, leave a large gap--the slower the traffic, the larger the gap. Try to arrange it so you can move at a slow but fairly constant speed instead of constantly having to react to the brake lights of the car in front of you and switch from the brake to the accelerator. It's a lot less tiring when you have the extra reaction time and you don't have to follow the movements of the car in front of you so closely.

Yes, people will occasionally pull into your lane, but when traffic is really congested it doesn't matter much. You can't really get ahead by weaving and changing lanes--you'll see the same cars that were weaving around right next to you again 10 miles down the road.

I think this was where I first heard this idea.
posted by mcguirk at 7:23 AM on July 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

The best way, I think, to enjoy something is to have positive, rather than negative experiences with it. If all you do with your car is sit in traffic during your commute, I doubt you'll ever enjoy driving very much.

Some suggestions:
-Road Trip! Make your own buddy movie.
-Less ambitious, but more practical: explore your new town. Whether you like to crawl Sunday morning jumble sales, or find that obscure store, use that as an excuse to get to know a neighbourhood. Take an hour or two to just drive around.
-Your car is your ally in getting away. If to sneak off at 3 on Thursday for night skiing or the go B&Bing on the weekend, your car is your enabler.

You get the idea. A car as transport expands the possibilities of fun you can have. Driving itself can be fun if you view it as a challenge rather than as something to be endured.
posted by bonehead at 7:32 AM on July 19, 2007

Bookmark It can come in very handy to determine what the traffic is like on the freeways.
posted by jaimev at 7:38 AM on July 19, 2007

"Once you start driving, you'll wonder how you ever lived without a car."

My experience was exactly the opposite: once I gave up driving, I marveled at how, for much of my life, I thoughtlessly spent so much time, money, energy and resources to stay chained to a car. I wonder how I went so long before realizing it.
posted by hollisimo at 8:19 AM on July 19, 2007 [2 favorites]

I'll second mcguirk's suggestion and add that when you're on a fairly clear freeway, you don't have to speed. I used to try to drive 80 (to make a nice right angle on my speedometer), but once I kept it to 70, my commute was a lot less tense. On a 3+ lane freeway, stay out of the left one so you don't worry about the guy behind you getting impatient.

Doing both of those will also help you save gas (less loss of energy to braking, more efficient speed).

Be nice and practice good car karma. In the grand scheme of things, just remember that it's not a big deal. Be wary of road rage -- it's just not worth it.

My commute also got much better when I got a tape adapter for my iPod. Anything that keeps you away from the radio with it's DJs and commercials is good.
posted by natabat at 8:21 AM on July 19, 2007

This won't make your daily commute more fun, or easier, but like jumper cables, you'll be glad to have them.

Keep and earthquake kit in your car. In addition to the aforementioned first aid kit, it should include a couple of jugs of water, a light blanket, some nonperishable food (e.g. energy bars), a flashlight and spare batteries, a roll of toilet paper, and something to read (well, maybe that's just me). Keep a pair of comfortable walking shoes - sneakers or dayhikers - in the trunk as well.

You should, of course, have an earthquake kit in your home, as well, but having one in your car, where you'll be spending a lot of time, is a good idea. Even if you never experience an earthquake that requires you to use the kit, you might well be stuck in a multi-hour, no-traffic-moving Sig Alert situation, and you'll be glad to have something to drink and read.
posted by rtha at 8:40 AM on July 19, 2007

I lived in L.A. for three years, and have been back for visits. I've never understood why L.A. traffic is thought to be bad. It's a huge expanse of city, but to travel, say, 20 miles in L.A. is no worset than driving 20 miles in any other city.
posted by Doohickie at 8:43 AM on July 19, 2007

This works for me at least. I constantly try to find new and better routes to get to where I want to go. Sometimes there are better under-utilized ways to get where I want to go. To find these places, it's easy to start with google maps and look for areas that are a bit more industrial, ideally with wide lanes (for trucks and the like). I also try to find where the good one way streets are (in my city those are the ones that are three lanes wide, and really designed to get you across town).
posted by drezdn at 8:47 AM on July 19, 2007

When I turned 16, my dad gave me a little book called Zen Driving, and I've read it many times since then. The basic theory is that driving is a great way to practice mindfulness of interdependence, uniqueness, and impermanence. Highly recommended.
posted by danblaker at 9:07 AM on July 19, 2007

Know several different routes for the place you go the most often. When there's a bad accident on the one freeway you know how to get home on you could be stuck for hours, although I guess that's what the GPS is for.

Be aware that frequently you'll be driving along at 70 in light traffic and all of a sudden, you'll hit stop and go. I'm not sure if this is distinctive to LA traffic, but its something that I felt important to make VERY clear to the person I just taught to drive. Don't rely on the flow of traffic.

I agree with plinth, if you can, find the window of light traffic and try to drive during that. For example, if I leave at 7 am it takes me 45 minutes to get to work, but if I leave at 7:20, it takes me an hour and a half.

Avoid the 405 at all costs. ;)
posted by wuzandfuzz at 9:15 AM on July 19, 2007

One more thing, I know its not a good idea in general to talk on the phone while driving, but I don't find it very distracting, and if you don't either then its a great time to make those phone calls that need to be made and you know will be long. I use the time to keep in touch with all my friends in other places, because if I do it when I'm at home I get restless about the other things I need to do. In the car, you can't be doing anything else, so talking to your old college roommate or grandma or whoever for 45 minutes is a lovely way to pass the time.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 9:19 AM on July 19, 2007

Oh hey, I did this! Except, instead of NYC > LA, it was San Francisco > San Diego. Still, prior to the move, I drove occasionally if necessity dictated, not constantly in order to survive day to day life.

Some thoughts:

My initial impression of driving in SoCal was that people were trying to kill me. This isn't necessarily the case - it's just that people make snap decisions at high speeds far more than I was used to. The driving style there is quick and decisive, and you need to become used to this and able to drive in a similar manner (e.g. drive at the speed of traffic if you don't want pissed off people trying to get around you in a profoundly unsafe way).

People drive big cars. You don't need an SUV, but this isn't an area to be driving a Mini.

Become a member of AAA. The cost is about $60, and in return you get free towing, flat tire, lockout, etc. roadside assistance. You will break down eventually, and probably in an area where you can't possibly walk to find a phonebook to call a towing company.

Learn about car maintenance. Maintaining your vehicle, even little things like checking your coolant/oil levels frequently, will help prevent you from being one of those poor sods you see on the side of the freeway, broken down and baking in the summer sun.
posted by Wavelet at 9:25 AM on July 19, 2007

People drive big cars. You don't need an SUV, but this isn't an area to be driving a Mini.

Not to derail, but don't be dissuaded from getting a smaller, zippier car if it means you'll be more aware of the road around you and can maneuver better than an SUV would. We drive a little Chevy Cobalt here and aside from sometimes not being able to see around the backs of Suburbans next to you when you're trying to pull out of a parking space, we've had zero problems.

Here's a long, scary New Yorker article about how SUVs have changed our ideas about car safety. Maybe for the plane ride out here?
posted by mdonley at 9:32 AM on July 19, 2007

Do NOT buy a car with a manual transmission. Get an automatic. Using a stick shift isn't bad when you don't have to deal with traffic, but it's a nightmare in the bumper-to-bumper nonsense you're going to be dealing with. Your left leg gets tired from the clutch and you just get sick of the whole rigmarole or shifting up and down and up and down and up and down...
posted by HotPatatta at 9:32 AM on July 19, 2007

Read this, its about how to reduce fuel use.
posted by Gregamell at 10:02 AM on July 19, 2007

Be aware of motorcyclists, we are able to legally split lanes during slow traffic (momentarily using the same lane you are in).

And if you are driving while gabbing on a cell phone as wuzandfuzz recommends, you can anticipate the very worst of car culture.
posted by artdrectr at 10:15 AM on July 19, 2007

I just moved to the LA area from the Detroit area, and I don't really get the ZOMG TRAFFIX hate yet. Going into Detroit, you can be doing 100 in the middle lane and still have people blow past you on the right, giving you the finger. Here it seems a lot more relaxed and a lot less Mad Max. But I'm on the west side, so what do I know?

Here are tips that make my life easier— Allow more time for the commute. I find that when I've got an extra few minutes, I can be a LOT more relaxed about that piece of shit motherfucker in the goddamned Lexus who's just horned into my lane.

Do USE YOUR SIGNALS. I'm not sure if they come standard on cars out here, but they make everyone's lives easier. It's like giving a speech, where you tell the audience what you're going to tell them in your introduction, then tell them what you told them you were going to tell them in your body: tell everyone where you're going to go, then go there.

Learn the side routes— Everything people tell me regarding directions always involves freeways, and there are almost always better ways to get there than the freeways. Luckily, the 10 is near where I live, and that's rarely congested around me.
posted by klangklangston at 12:34 PM on July 19, 2007

If you are joining AAA get at least the "Plus" level you will regret the 7 miles -> 100 miles towing difference if nothing else.

Thomas guide is a must. I do not think i know anybody who does not at least have an out of date copy in their car.

Ask people for their favorite routes to places. People in LA and Orange County know traffic as they have to deal with it and are usually glad to discuss routes.

And remember the car is for fun things as well, driving to the beach and the mountains. Take a drive in to central LA on the weekends and it is a truly great place to drive about. The buildings and dodging adverts being filmed are worth it.
posted by stuartmm at 1:14 PM on July 19, 2007

When you see traffic slowing down up ahead, shift into the right lanes. And sometimes you can use connector ramps to bypass traffic.

I've never understood why LA traffic is thought to be bad.

Agreed. I think it's East Coast envy eminating from that media stronghold of truly horrendous traffic, DC.
posted by Rash at 1:22 PM on July 19, 2007

Afternoon rush "hour" in LA is from 3 to ~8pm.

Even if you're not on your cell, beware because a lot of the other drivers will be, often meaning they are not paying attention.

The 405 is a nightmare if you hit it at the wrong time.

There are a million freeways that cross by downtown (10, 101, 110 etc.) Be careful. If you miss your exit and try and get off at the next one and turn around, you may end up lost.

Nthing the Thomas Guide.

Also, sudden slowing does not usually mean an accident is ahead. I found that most of the time traffic would slow around a certain point for no apparent reason!
posted by PinkButterfly at 1:45 PM on July 19, 2007

Turn signals are the facial expressions of autombiles. It's true. If you don't use them, you drive like Rainman.
posted by bonehead at 3:37 PM on July 19, 2007

Oh, and watch out for cops overtaking and then proceeding to weave across the freeway at high speed. It means they want to slow all the traffic down. I almost crapped my pants the first time I saw them doing this.
posted by wackybrit at 11:21 PM on July 19, 2007

The call that running a "traffic break." I only saw it happen once, but heard 'em mention it on the traffic news, and wondered. Also, they'll talk about "bob-tail trucks" which are known as tow trucks elsewhere.
posted by Rash at 1:50 PM on July 21, 2007

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