Monday, August 22, 2016

Things I learned while in California

On our road trip a couple of weeks ago, we passed through Nevada and Arizona but spent most of our time driving in California. I made some observations about California driving.
  • Shop around for petrol. This is true everywhere but doubly so in California. In Utah, from one end of the state to the other, it's not unusual to see prices differ by up to 40 cents per gallon. In California I saw big-branded petrol stations - Shell, Chevron etc - within a couple of miles of each other with huge price differences. The most extreme was in Huntington Beach where one was selling premium for $1.96/gallon and 1.3 miles away, the same brand was selling the same gas for $4.69/gallon - over double the price. I expect to see price differences like that on the motorways, but these were both on the side of Highway 101 and within sight of each other.
  • Californians don't seem to like breaking the speed limit. From crossing the state line coming in from Reno, driving 2000 or more miles inside California, to leaving via I-15 after Barstow, the average driver seemed to prefer to be at or under the speed limit rather than over. And the speed limits are appallingly low in CA with many freeways still stuck in the 1950's with 55-60mph limits. Compare to Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and other surrounding states where people generally drive 5-10mph over the limit. Of course once you talk about the 405, I-5 and I-10 anywhere near L.A, speed limits are a moot point because you're inevitably sitting in 5 or more lanes of 10mph crawl.
  • Californians have a dangerous inability to drive hilly or mountainous roads. Not only do they spend the entire time on the brakes when going downhill - to the point where you can't tell if they're slowing down or not because you've been following brake lights for 30 miles - but they brake at EVERY CORNER going downhill. On I-80 from Reno to Sacramento, it's two lanes and about a 35 mile descent. The limit is 55 to 60 depending on the section of road. We were stuck in 35mph traffic almost the whole way for no apparent reason other than every car in front of us - for as far as I could see - was on the brakes. All the time. It's as if they don't know that going down a gear will do a much better job than the brakes will on a long, shallow descent. The same was true when trying to get to and from Palomar observatory on S-6, and on the hilly sections of I-15 and SR76 near Pala Mesa. I'd say some of what they were doing on the mountain roads was downright dangerous. You don't ever, EVER come to a complete stop because of a corner on a freeway, no matter what. Doing it on blind downhill bends would be something I'd start ticketing drivers for if I was in the highway patrol. Yet we saw this time and time again - any slight deviation from a dead straight line and everyone dropped their speed to the point where we ended up in phantom traffic jams of stationary traffic at almost every bend.
  • Like Utah drivers, Californians don't like to overtake. On one of the more open sections of Highway 1, we came across an armored truck bumbling along at 30mph - slower uphill obviously. We joined the tail end of a line of probably 10 cars who seemed to be quite happy to sit behind this truck. As the opportunities presented themselves, nobody would overtake. So we did. Two or three cars at a time, until we got to the truck. We had to wait a little for another broken yellow line in the middle of the road, but when it came, off we went. After that we had no traffic behind us for nearly an hour. It was only when we got to some roadworks near Bixby Bridge that the armored truck caught us up with a massive line of traffic behind it. Overtake, people. It's easy and it makes your drive a lot more enjoyable.
  • Californians love the left lane. Doesn't matter how many lanes, they'll get into the left lane and sit there, normally 5mph below the limit. I lost count of the thousands of cars we passed simply by staying in the right lanes. The left lane was always full of nose-to-tail slower-moving traffic so we hardly ever used it. It was more efficient to use the right lanes to pass.
  • Lane splitting is now legal in CA. It used to be "not illegal" but now it's actually legal and the motorcyclists embrace this law with a vengeance. I'm a motorcyclist too and I used to lane-split all the time in England. In Utah it's illegal which just kills me when I'm riding, so I'm fully, 100% behind the law in CA and it made me smile every time a motorcycle passed us between lanes.
  • Californians seem bizarrely tolerant of people pushing into queues. When we came to the toll plaza at the San Mateo bridge, we joined the lines of traffic waiting to pay cash as we didn't have a SpeedPass. We then watched as 12 different cars drove all the way to the front of the line and just started nosing in to the line. Every time, someone let them in.
    So top tip - if you want to get through a toll plaza quickly in California, drive to the front and push in because there's a 100% chance someone will let you do it without so much as a honked horn or a shouted insult.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Road tripping

Last week we drove 2500 miles in six days. We went on a road trip from Utah over to California, down highway 1 and back up through Vegas to Utah again. It was a fun time - we got to see a lot of different things. What's interesting is how large distances and empty highways are something that lead to being able to do 500 miles in a day without any problem. When I used to live in England, I wouldn't voluntarily get in a car and drive 200 miles anywhere, let alone 500. I'd sooner have shot myself in the head. The congestion is terrible everywhere and the motorways are choked with centre-lane drivers and nanny cameras that issue fines without remorse.
In America, especially in the west, things are considerably different. The stretches of I-80 and I-15 that lead to and from our home city all neck down to two lanes once you're out of the main city area. The speed limit is either 75mph or 80mph depending on where you are, and the traffic is so relatively light that you can set the cruise control and literally not touch the brakes for 400 miles. It's still tiring to drive that sort of distance in a day but it's not difficult (unless you're in that f*cking Chevy). Rest stops are pretty well placed - normally 60 to 70 miles apart so there's plenty of opportunity to pull over and have something to eat, stretch your legs and such.
Then there's the "we've passed them before" game. There's always slower-moving traffic - larger trucks, motor homes etc. Very often we'll pass a bunch, then stop for something to eat, and when we get on the road again, we'll end up passing all the same vehicles again because they kept going when we stopped.
Road tripping isn't some romantic, idyllic thing though - that's not the point of this post. The point is that when I tell my friends back in Europe that we're driving 500 miles to get somewhere, their response is always the same - "what!?". Yes it would be different if we were on the East coast, but where we live, it's not a problem. And with the assholes at the TSA, the checkin and waiting times and all the other hassle at airports, it's pretty much a wash in terms of travel time now whether we drive 500 miles or fly.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Is your car really getting the service you're paying for?

It seems like car dealerships and car servicing are one of those last great bastions of criminality that everyone sort of knows exists but tends to turn a blind eye to. From the aggressive high-pressure sales tactics to the endless tens of thousands of anecdotal tales about how horrendous some places are. Top that off with repeated TV crews running investigations into service places that charge customers but don't do the service and you realize that barely half a year goes without some corporate chain being exposed.
Personally I'd never take my car to a quick-lube oil-change place again. I've had direct experience of the big US chain (I won't name them but it rhymes with Kwik-e-lube) and the big UK chain (rhymes with Brit-fit). In the US they forgot to tighten an oil filter and it came off on the drive home and crapped out an entire engine's worth of oil on to the road (fortunately, I managed to save the engine). In the UK I had an exhaust done which came off on the motorway driving home and went through the window of the car behind me. There are plenty of cases where similar events have happened, people's engines have been ruined and the brand or chain in question has not taken responsibility for what is clearly their problem.
So what can you do about it? Depends on whether you trust the places to do the work they say they'll do. It's sad that this question even has to be asked. But the quickest way to know for sure is to mark the item before you take your vehicle in. A little blob of silver paint, or scratch the item in a unique place with a screwdriver - something you can use to identify it if it's still on the car once they say the work is done.
Be careful of the up-sell. Most lube places don't make their money on the basic oil change. You'll go in asking for whatever they're advertising, and instantly they'll try to upsell you to the 'premium' oil. I guarantee it. Then they'll likely start with air filters, windshield wipers, brakes being too worn, brake fluid being old, power steering fluid being old (in both cases they'll tell you it either smells burned or is the wrong colour) and best of all - the engine flush.
Just don't do it - get the oil change and get out. Then get someone else to check whatever it was they told you needed doing, so you're not being pressured into a spur-of-the-moment decision.
And if they tell you 'legally we can't let you leave without doing your brakes', that's a classic red flag that they're trying to fleece you.
Buyer beware - as always.

Monday, August 1, 2016

What gives an F1 team its nationality?

A lot of the F1 world welcomed Haas racing to the track this year, and a lot of hoopla was made about it being an American team. But is it really?
The team is headquartered in Kannapolis but 95% of the engineering, assembly and maintenance work is done by Brits in Banbury in Oxfordshire at the old Marussia facility. As it turns out the only time their F1 cars are in Kannapolis is ahead of the US GP in Austin.
The chassis' comes from Dallara in Italy. The engines come from Ferrari - obviously also in Italy. The drivers are Grosjean (French) and Gutiéerrez (Mexican). The team principal is Guenther Steiner (Italian), the technical directors is Rob Taylor (English) and the chief aerodynamicist is Ben Agathangelou (Greek). Even the chief test driver - Charles Leclerc - is from Monaco.
In fact the only American connection in the team at all is Gene Haas - the owner - and Joe Custer, the COO. Once you get past them, there's nothing American about the team at all.
So is Haas an American F1 team simply because of the nationality of the owner?

Monday, July 25, 2016

Driving a crappy car is exhausting.

You might remember a post from a couple of weeks ago where I did 900-odd miles in a Chevy Equinox LT. You might also remember what an utter turd of a car that thing is.
Driving is exhausting, no matter how long or short the journey. In a great car, that works well, you never notice the exhaustion because it's normally not anything to be noticed. It's slight. However when you're driving a badly-engineered car, it can be unbelievably exhausting. That Equinox LT - the one that could barely hit 80mph - was a case in point. I've driven the 450 miles to Vegas a dozen times or more without ever having any issue. But trying to get that Equinox there - well - a different matter. I had to wrestle to keep it in a straight line. I had to be 100% aware of where the gearbox was about to kick down, where the engine wouldn't have enough power to pull off even a simple overtake. I had to plan way the hell ahead - I had to watch for faster-moving traffic behind that I knew I wouldn't be able to get out of the way of. I had to watch to make sure there wasn't an incline ahead that would catch me out mid-overtake. I had to take account of the damned wind direction because once it got into headwind, 70mph was hard enough and 80 was unattainable. I had to make sure there weren't any corners coming up that were more than slight, because the high sidewalls and sloppy handling meant it was a hell of an effort to keep it in-lane when cornering at speed. Well - "at speed" is hard to quantify when it complained like hell the closer I got to 80mph.
Anyway - the end result of all of this was that I faceplanted the bed in the hotel room after getting to Vegas and slept for two hours straight - something I've never previously had to do after that drive. I was mentally shot.
Get a car that has a decent amount of power, with good brakes, a comfy seat and tight steering, and you'll enjoy the drive and arrive alert and awake. Get an utter shitbox like the Chevy Equinox LT and you're risking your life because mentally you'll be at full capacity all the time just trying to drive it.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Utah Driver's latest trick - stopping at green lights.

There's a new disease afflicting drivers around where I live - they've started coming to a halt at green traffic lights. I don't know why - I mean apart from the driving population here generally being morons - but I mean there's no actual reason for it. The lights operate they way they always have. Red means stop. Orange means don't enter intersection. Green means go. Only now it seems that green means stop. So far this year I've witnessed no less than 5 rear-end accidents because of this. Accidents where someone just slams on the brakes when they get to a green light and the person behind them runs into the back of them. Because - you know - as any normal logical person would think, they probably also thought that a green light meant "go" not "park at the line".
I've given up hooting, honking and shouting at these idiots now. Now I have a much simpler strategy: I just go around them. So if you're reading this in Utah, and you're afflicting with this weird disease of stopping at green lights, be aware that people are likely to either run into you, or go around you. You're a danger to everyone else on the road and shouldn't have a license.