A Visitors’ Guide To Driving In Southern California

A guest entry from the kid, Kate Symmonds:

freeway-800-042609If you’re thinking about taking a trip to Southern California, you’ll need to rent a car.  And you’ll need some survival tips.

After three years in Montreal, I figured that moving to San Diego would make me a happier, more relaxed person.  And I really have almost forgotten what it feels like to step outside in negative 40-degree weather and have tears of pain freeze to my face. I’ve noticed, however, that I can’t get into my car without tensing up. This is because my personal hell is driving on the freeways of Southern California. And I do it every day.

So if you’re coming to Southern California (which I would vaguely define as anywhere between and including San Diego and Santa Barbara counties), I have some advice.

Forget about public transportation. Los Angeles and San Diego are not like New York or Boston, where you can either walk or take the subway to anywhere you want to go. Southern California cities are much more spread out and have very limited public transportation systems. I lived in San Diego for eight months without a car, so I can tell you from personal experience that if you want to venture outside your hotel, you’ll need a car.

Prepare for the worst. (And redefine worst.) You may have driven in Boston, through New York City, or on the Washington Beltway, but none of those things will prepare you for the unique nature of the freeways in Southern California. What separates the freeways here from traffic elsewhere is, I believe, the sheer number of cars on the road at all times. The constant congestion causes drivers to become impatient, get restless, and start driving like crazed idiots. I’ve seen aggressive and uncooperative driving before, but never like I see here on a daily basis.

Google's Los Angeles traffic warnings, Saturday at 9 a.m.

Google's Los Angeles traffic warnings, Saturday at 9 a.m.

Remember that there is always traffic: That doesn’t mean traffic is always stop-and-go, but it does mean that regardless of the time of day, you will be surrounded by other cars. When I drive between Santa Barbara and San Diego (a trip that takes three and a half hours on the 5, the 101 and the 405) I never hit a point where there aren’t cars on all sides of me, even at midnight on a Sunday. So always assume there’s a car in your blind spot because chances are pretty good that there is.

But some times are worse than others. Time your travels very carefully. San Diego has pretty bad traffic, but it pales in comparison to that of LA. Thus, while San Diego traffic should be avoided during regular rush hours, LA traffic should be avoided whenever possible, and particularly between 4 a.m. and 8 p.m.  If you drive during the daylight hours on any freeway in LA county (and sometimes into Orange County) be prepared to hit stop-and-go traffic and leave yourself plenty of extra time to get to where you need to go, especially if you’re trying to catch a flight. As a side note, if you’re driving on the 101 in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, avoid Friday and Sunday afternoons. Unlike the seven-lane freeways in LA, the freeway connecting Santa Barbara to Ventura is only 2 lanes most of the way down. This makes for some pretty nasty traffic.
Choose lanes carefully. Study your directions and choose your lane carefully. It can be very hard to navigate the six- to eight-lane freeways of Southern California. The high volume of traffic makes it extremely dangerous to make last-minute lane changes. There are a surprising number of exit-only lanes on California freeways so you’ve got to pay attention. Also, you’ll often enter the highway on an exit-only lane and need to move left almost immediately. It’s my personal belief that it’s safest to stay away from the far right lanes because those lanes see a lot of last-minute lane changes and alarmingly low use of turn signals.

Always be prepared to stop immediately
. Just because it’s a freeway and you’re driving 80 mph doesn’t mean you won’t come to a dead stop in 5.2 seconds. This happens surprisingly often, especially anywhere near Los Angeles. I don’t know exactly why — sometimes it’s caused by a bad accident and sometimes it just happens. Either way, it is a horrifying experience because while you can try to ensure your own safety by not tailgating the car in front of you, you can’t control how closely the jerk behind you is following (Please don’t tailgate. Ever. It’s stupid and supremely annoying.)  My observation is that about 60 percent of the time that traffic stops because of an accident, there is at least one additional fender-bender caused by the breathtakingly sudden stop of traffic, combined with people following too closely.
Watch out for motorcycles. There is an appallingly dangerous California law that allows motorcyclists to drive between lanes. Yes, they can and will drive at 90 mph in the five-foot-wide space between you and the car next to you. And you won’t always hear them coming. This would be dangerous on any highway, but on the freeways of Southern California, it’s terrifying. So when you’re changing lanes on the freeway, look over your shoulder, use that turn signal (no matter how uncool that might seem), and be absolutely certain there isn’t a fast-approaching motorcyclist heading your way.
Prepare for bumps. There’s nothing wrong with your car’s suspension and you don’t have a flat tire, that’s just the way the freeways are here. It seems like every freeway I’ve driven so far is only half-paved. That horrible, grooved, patchy pavement they lay down before the last smooth layer of pavement is the norm.
My parting words to you are: when you come visit us here (and you should), bring a healthy dose of fear to the freeways and take a deep breath when you hit that seemingly never-ending traffic jam. It will end, I promise.
Useful traffic Web sites:
CA Department of Transportation: www.dot.ca.gov     
LA county: www.dot.ca.gov/dist07/travel/traffic/
San Diego county: www.dot.ca.gov/dist11/d11tmc/sdmap/showmap.php
Santa Barbara county: www.keyt.com/traffic


One thought on “A Visitors’ Guide To Driving In Southern California

  1. John

    I can’t speak for San Diego, but I am always really impressed with Los Angeles public transportation system. The buses are cheap (a single ride is $1.25, $5 for a whole day), and every bus I’ve ridden gets me to my destination on time, and they have their own lanes on Freeways. Most buses I’ve ridden have TV screens with tourist and local information, and every minute or 2 show a live Google map showing where the bus currently is. I live in Portland, OR which has one of the better public transportation systems, but my last few trips to LA I have used buses and the occational underground train exclusively, no car rental.


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