Posted in Los Angeles

Driving in LA

My husband vowed that no matter what, he would never drive in LA.

So, here we are.

"LA is a great big freeway..."
“LA is a great big freeway…”

Despite watching Speed, I never appreciated the brilliance that is the LA freeway. Don’t get me wrong, they are terrifying, and terrible when blocked, but they do an amazing job. The freeway cannot be compared to a motorway in the UK. The freeway (when it works) is like a conveyor belt or a train line, rather than a cross-country road: you get on it where you are, and you get off where you want to be. Freeways are everywhere and there are entrances and exits every mile or so in the denser areas. If the option were available, you would almost never go a distance of more than two miles on ‘surface streets’ (i.e. not on a freeway).

The main problem with freeways occurs when one or all lanes are blocked because of a collision or some other incident. Just the other day, the 210 Eastbound at Pasadena was completely blocked because of an epic crash – a truck blew a tire and sideswiped another truck into the light-rail line that runs along the center of the freeway. The accident happened at about 1pm, and the whole south side of Pasadena, including miles and miles of freeway were gridlocked until well past rush hour.

Friends of ours told us to always make sure to go the bathroom before starting a journey involving a freeway and to keep snacks and water in the car. We were also told to check which has up to date colour-coded traffic speed information.

Our route to work at the moment is I-5 south, 134-east, 2-north, 210-east. Check out the video below to get an idea of what it’s like:

When it came to driving on the freeway there were two things that we needed to get used to immediately.

First is the volume of ginormous trucks on the road. This is mostly a problem on the I-5 and the 210. Trucks are only allowed on the right two lanes but they more often than not stay in the second lane to keep out of the way of cars merging onto the freeway. What this means though, is that if one truck is going the truck speed limit (55mph) and another truck wants to go faster, it will overtake on the inside. If you want to overtake a truck and go at the speed limit, you also probably have to do it on the inside. You may also need to change your trousers afterwards. (Technically you must past a truck on the left)


The second thing we’ve had to get used to the amount of lane-switching that happens.

Freeway exits and entrances can be on the left or the right. Our exit from the I-5 onto the 134 occurs on the left – so we suddenly go from exit-lane to fast-lane. People already on the 134 see that two extra fast lanes have appeared and immediately want to be in them – so they start switching left. Those just joining the 134 might want to get to an exit in half a mile, so they start switching right. Trucks joining the 134 have to switch right because they aren’t allowed in the outer lanes. Regular people who want to go (at best) at the speed limit and don’t need to exit for a few miles, get tail-gated out of the outer lanes. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

In general, when you switch lanes you have to be careful that someone two lanes across doesn’t also see the same gap and try to get in it as well. You have to be careful of someone coming at 90 mph in the middle lane. You have to be careful of motorbikes doing whatever they want (lane-splitting is legal here). You have to be careful of someone joining the freeway from the right then attempting to cross four lanes into the fast lane in one smooth movement. You have to be careful of Glendale drivers weaving in and out (yesterday we saw someone in a Merc nearly lose control of his car because he switched so hard).

So in summary, it’s terrifying. I actually prefer it when the traffic is heavy because everyone is going slowly. I’ve found that music helps, and I have the radio on Jack-FM because it has excellent driving songs.

Getting our CA licenses

Because we’d taken the precaution of getting our Massachusetts licenses [read all about it here], we only had to take the theory test to get our California ones. This did involve memorizing 100 pages of road rules [Handbook (pdf)] including the following:

Things you must not do - the full list is here:
Things you must not do.

There are practice tests on the DMV website.

The California DMV allows you to make an appointment. This doesn’t stop you having to wait in a line to start with, and some time a lot of time in a room with too many people and not enough chairs, but once we’d queued for about 10 minutes we only had to wait another 10 minutes for our number to come up. In the end it took us an hour and a half to get our car registered and pass our theory tests.

Buying our car

We bought a 2002 Honda Accord from a mathematics postdoc at Caltech, so we are now ready to fully embrace the LA car culture.





Travel, photography, blogging, being an expat. And that's just in my spare time.

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