The Phantom Gear Stick

I’ve been driving on the US for a month now and finally, just today, I managed to undertake an entire car journey without my hand reaching out for a non-existent gear stick. My left leg fell into listless line about a week ago but my hand would not so kept reaching for the phantom gear stick – or stick shift as they say here. Now my left hand gets to be mostly indolent too.


I need to learn what the law is in the US regarding correct use of a car’s horn.  This is more from idle curiosity than the fact that at some point soon I am going to have to sit my driving test.  

In the UK, the correct use for a car’s horn is to sound a warning to another vehicle.  While I am not sure how the law stands here, people appear to use their car horns whenever they feel the need.  Frustration and anger are definite motivators for people to thump their horns around here but also just for the merry heck of it from what I can determine.  I am actually becoming inured to the sound of car horns because of it and that can’t be a good thing: how can it work as a warning signal if people are ignoring it because it is so routine to hear the ugly peal of a car horn every few minutes?

I have personally been honked at twice in the month that I have been living in the US.  The first time was because I got confused about which lane was for traffic going straight ahead and switched at last minute.  I didn’t cut anyone up or even cause anyone to have to slow down yet the car behind me still felt the need to blare it’s horn.  I guess that was to be considered educational horn use.  I think it was an over-reaction but at least that one was a fair cop.  The second time was last night.  I was stationary at a stop sign for perhaps a maximum of two seconds too long and that was reason enough for the car behind me to blast its horn.  Totally uncalled for.  How much of a rush can you be in that waiting an extra two seconds to hit the stop sign yourself makes your blood boil?

I don’t get it at all.  Do drivers here like having constant high blood pressure from the stress of waiting for the next person to be honk-worthy?  Do they actually find it therapeutic to slam their fist down on the horn every time someone irritates them?

I need to check out the law on car horn use and, while I’m at it, I might check out where the law stands on horns that play soothing music instead of honks because I think folks around here could do with some of that being blasted at them.


Friends and family will know that the one thing about relocating to America that intimidated me more than any other thing was driving.  Although I have visited America several times over the past two decades, I have never driven there.  For various reasons, my husband has always been the driver.  Nor have I ever driven on my travels in continental Europe so I have zero experience of driving on the other side of the road.  The thought of having to do so  – with four kids in the back to boot – was one that freaked me out.

I opted to face and flood my fears.  I was going to have to drive in order to complete basic, daily tasks so I had to just throw myself at it headlong.  I arrived in the US last Thursday evening and on Friday morning I was in the driver’s seat and reversing out of our driveway.  I drove along busy roads, parked in thronging car parks, and navigated completely unfamiliar territory and not only did I not splat another living being but I didn’t even clip a wing mirror.  No one died.  No one was even injured.  Success.

My road positioning was horrible initially.  I was conscious of driving a slightly wider car than the one I had had in Scotland and was also, of course, sitting on the side of the car away from the kerb so my whole sight line was different.  However, I established that the correct positioning accorded with the outer edge of the windscreen wiper blade being in line with the road lines on my side of the car.  No more risk of scuffing tires on kerbs from that point.  Of course, there is still the challenge of navigating in residential streets with no lines painted on the tarmac but so far so good.  Let me reiterate: no one has died or suffered injury at the expense of my driving.

The turning on red thing is weirding me out, however.  In Scotland, I am used to signs informing me what not to do: no left turn, one way street, no entry.  Added to that is the fact that red very definitely means red.  Stop.  Not red that is kind of amber and means go unless you have to stop.  Suddenly being faced with a system where they tell you to do something unless they expressly tell you not to do it is just too counter-intuitive to my brain.  I’ve been driving in Britain for over 20 year.  Undoing all of that habitual behaviour is going to be a challenge.  I’m institutionalised.  So for now I have to deal with being hesitant and being honked at by other drivers as I try to determine whether red really does mean stop or go unless you have to stop.  I am also having to learn to lift my eyes that bit higher to read the traffic lights in the first place as their positioning is so much higher than those in the UK and so my sight line is another habit I need to break.  But still not a living thing or their property has been damaged by my driving.  Let’s chalk that up as a success.

Now added to the fact I have never driven in America is the fact I have  barely ever driven an automatic before. I drove one once for a few weeks 20 years ago.  I have always owned manual cars.  Suddenly I find I own a car with an automatic transmission so that is another learning curve for me.  Admittedly driving an automatic is much easier than driving a stickshift but once more it is about the habituated behaviour.  My left leg feels too idle and whenever I go from reverse to drive I look for the gear stick with my left hand, flapping and pawing about, which is peculiar since that isn’t even my gear changing hand.  It feels as if the limbs on my left side are atrophying when I am driving.  It really is peculiar.  Yet I am grateful to not be having to learn how to drive a stickshift back to front while also learning everything else.  Like when to turn on red.

At some point I will have to take my test and get my PA driver’s license.  I don’t think “No one died or got injured” is adequate, however, so that will be a challenge for the not so distant future.