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Driving in the USA – Or, Look Left First!

by Nicola Pearce

Driving USADriving is a vital part of an au pair’s job, there are school runs to do, clubs and play dates to zip to and you will also have a bit of a social life to keep going, so getting used to the rules of the road in the USA is going to be crucial. Americans drive on the wrong side of the road as we all know, so make sure you always LOOK LEFT FIRST whether driving or just crossing a road on foot!

Driving in the US will quickly become second nature to you, it will also give you freedom and independence during your stay. Here are a few pointers that might help your transition to the Wrong Side:

In many ways it’s easier to drive in the US than the UK – roads are wider, residential areas are built on a grid so it’s easier to navigate, an automatic is easier to drive than a ‘stick’, and there is just more room around you. Supermarket and mall car parks are massive, and in some city car parks, you just give in your keys and they will park your car for you. Gas (petrol) is also astonishingly cheap compared to the UK. It’ll feel great once you get used to it– you can start making plans for a road trip after your time as an au pair comes to an end.

Practising is the key – as soon as you arrive, ask your host family if you can do a few short journeys. To start with go out with your host mom or dad and ask them to show you where things are. As soon as you feel ready (even if you still feel a bit nervous) start doing small trips on your own, offer to pop to get milk or diapers and whatnot – any excuse to get behind the wheel. Finally, add the kids into the mix (properly tethered of course) to let you get used to driving and ignoring distractions and smells from inside the car.

If like me you are a bit rubbish at finding your way or following directions (as soon as I hear ‘you can’t miss it!’ I know I’m going to miss it), always keep your eyes peeled and learn to navigate by landmarks and odd things you notice as you’re driving: a store front, a sign, a restaurant. Have an idea of the route before you leave – try not to rely entirely on sat nav.

There are different laws on the roads varying from state to state. You can look on the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) website and of course ask your family what the rules are in your state – for example in all states you can turn right on a red light if it’s all clear – that’s why the guy behind you is sounding his horn. However in New York City this doesn’t apply, so ignore the guy behind you, he’s probably from New Jersey.

Don’t flash your lights as we do in the UK, to say ‘after you’ or ‘thanks’. In America, drivers flash their headlights as a warning to other drivers that police are present and the police do not look favourably on this!

Children getting off yellow school buses have right of way. Take care if you are behind a slowing school bus and don’t overtake, even if their stop lights aren’t flashing – children could be starting to cross.

The maximum speed limit is 65mph in the USA.

There is a USD$50 fine for not wearing a seatbelt. Children under four must be in a child safety seat, and between the ages of 4-7 they need to use a booster seat. Children under 12 years old are not allowed to sit in the front.

If you should ever get stopped by the police, bear in mind, they do not have a sense of humour. Generally, they are not like that guy in the movie Bridesmaids (after all, he’s an actor not a cop). Like US Immigration and US Taxes – you just can’t mess with them. Pull over if they tell you to, stay in the car and keep your hands in view, e.g. on the steering wheel. Stay calm and be polite. They might just be doing spot checks.

If you do get stopped the officer will ask to see your licence and may want to see your car registration document and insurance card, so always carry them with you.

DO NOT drink and drive, there is a zero limit so you mustn’t touch alcohol before you drive. If you get a DUI (Driving Under the Influence) ticket, you won’t be able to carry on as an au pair and will have to come home.

Stick to a Zero Hero policy if you go out socially and don’t drink at all if you are driving. Be aware that even passengers are not allowed to have an ‘open container’ of booze in the car.

If you have a car accident on duty then you are not responsible for paying any damages, but if you are off duty you will have to cover half the costs of the damages with a maximum payment of USD$500. Ouch.

When I lived in New Jersey, I used to regularly hear this on the radio after the news: ‘Opposite side of the street parking rules apply’. To this day I don’t honestly know what that means: The rules are opposite today? Don’t park on the opposite side of the road? What is the opposite side of the road? Doesn’t it depend on which side of the road you are on? Anyway, the point is, be careful if you park on the street – you will get a ticket if you get it wrong. Not as bad as drink driving, but imagine how you are going to feel when you have to explain yourself to your host family! Oh, and never park even close to a fire hydrant. Your car will be lifted and impounded. Don’t ask me how I know all about that…

Have your emergency numbers on you: your host mom and dad, the breakdown company, the insurance company – check with the host family what the procedure is if you should get into an accident. Always have your phone with you for emergencies, but as in the UK, NEVER text or call when you are driving. The engine has to be off if you are using your phone.

If you are driving with a known vomiter in the back, have a plastic box with a lid (to contain the up chuck and wet clothes), baby wipes and a change of clothing. I always carry the official ‘Chucking Up Bowl’ when my kids are in the car – my car is undeniably a bit whiffy (thanks to the apple cores, orange peel, and mouldy sweeties on the floor) but at least it doesn’t smell of puke.

If you are on duty, including visits to cluster meetings and educational classes, then the host family will fund your petrol costs. When you use the family car for personal use you will be responsible for paying for your own petrol.

Don’t forget to buy your International Driving Licence before you go to the USA. You can get this from a UK Post Office at a cost of £5.50. Many US states require you to have an American Driving License too. Your host family will be able to tell you where your local DMV office is so you can apply for this when you arrive. You can also use this as official ID in the US too. They cost USD$30.

Finally, be safe, be late. Don’t take any risks in the car, if you are going to be late, then that’s the way it has to be. Don’t speed, don’t take any chances. Stop and call to say you are late (say it’s the traffic!) and leave more time next time!

Oh and finally: LOOK LEFT FIRST!

Happy motoring!

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