Guest Author - Christine Wilcox
When I'm driving in my home town, I would give myself an A minus... I feel like I deserve the A, because in my 22 years of operating a motor vehicle, I've only been in two accidents (knocking on the biggest piece of wood in the room right now...) and of those, I only was the instigator in the second one. The "minus" on the A comes from the fact that I, on occasion, answer my cell phone without my ear piece in. But I do keep it on speaker phone, so that's why I don't downgrade it to a B.
Driving in a new city, however, is a whole new classroom. I give myself a C when I'm on foreign turf, and you should, too. Don't assume that your exceptional hometown driving skills translate to new roads. When we drive in new cities, we're not driving; we're looking. Looking for things. Looking for signs. Looking for landmarks. And since we're not at ease in our driving, we're not driving smart.
Driving in unfamiliar territory, we're paying more attention to street signs and what's printed on them than to the road. We have our list of directions - generally printed in 11 point font - on the passenger seat beside us, and comparing them with what we're seeing in the unfamiliar environment. This can be a recipe for disaster, for obvious reasons. When we're concentrated on signs that are generally ten to twenty feet in the air, we're not looking at things that are at six feet and below, like the profile of most cars, and generally pedestrians and bicyclists. And anyone with any more maneuverability than a car, I've found, doesn't generally follow traffic laws - even the ones that they're supposed to.
Case in point: driving in San Leandro, CA. After a harried three days of driving in San Francisco where pedestrians downtown generally follow the signs but have occasional bouts of rabbiting in and out among parked and stopped cars on the streets, I escaped today to East Bay, where the pace generally slowed. I was on a street I hadn't been on in 2 years, looking for a restaurant. When I was looking at street signs and the restaurant names, I clicked my right turn signal and began a turn into a parking lot to get my bearings. A bicyclist (who, in my defense, was riding on the wrong side of the road) almost ended up embedded in the hood of the rental car.
Yes, he was violating traffic laws, and I wasn't, but in "car versus bike," I'm not sure which side would be looked upon with favor if it had come to a collision. But more importantly - I was looking 10 feet up in the air, not at pedestrian level, when I was driving.
Driving in new cities can be a pleasant experience, but it's rarely stress free. Be smart, be safe, and going solo won't have any low moments.