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California Driving:
Welcome To Car Culture!

California's a car culture. You won't survive for long without a car in California — California was designed for cars…

Introduction To California Driving

How do you survive driving in a place where maybe half of all turns and lane changes are done without signalling? A place where drivers on the freeways drive in whatever lane they feel like, depending on their mood? A place where even relatively trivial health problems can bankrupt you? A place where you may need snow chains and air-conditioning in the same hour while driving? A place where the SUV (with or without an assault stereo) is still king? A place that has stop signs on all four entrances to many intersections? And why is that idiot behind me shining a red light into my car? And what does that blue painted line on the curb mean? Who do I have to tip to get service? Why are there so few brick buildings in California? Why do shopkeepers treat me like a child when I give them $5 for a $5 book? Can I use my Australian GSM mobile phone in San Francisco? What does it take to drive the beautiful Californian deserts?

And despite all the problems, why is driving in California so rewarding? Read on…

Firstly, remember that California's a car culture. You won't survive for long without a car in California — California was designed for cars. Californian urban and suburban planning usually assumes that every person owns a car, and nearly all tourist facilities, shopping centers, workplaces, etc. are built on the assumption that everyone at least has access to a car. Without such access, you can find yourself inconvenienced or even in danger. In large parts of suburbia, streets are deliberately built without sidewalks to discourage pedestrians; in other areas just walking around outside on those suburban streets can be enough for the local police to stop and question you (as once happened to me in Los Angeles).

California is nearly inaccessible without a car; by European or British standards, California has almost no convenient or safe public transport. If you're a tourist taking a vacation or holiday in California, you'll soon discover that, except for small parts of the San Francisco Bay Area, where public transport can be fairly convenient and safe (and often the best way to get around), most tourist areas or naturally-beautiful places are only realistically accessible by car or crowded tourist bus. Most people who fly into California, whether for business or for vacation, will rent a car when they get here — there's simply no cheaper or more convenient and safe way to get to and from the airport and your other destinations. In nearly every part of the state, it is always quicker, cheaper, more convenient, and safer to take a car than to use public transport — assuming public transport exists there at all. Similarly, if you've just moved to California (or are thinking of doing this), you're almost certainly going to need a car to get to work, do the shopping, and generally survive.

Unfortunately, being a car culture, everyone drives — meaning there's a lot of bad and dangerous driving out there. Respect for common sense and the law is rarer than in places where driving is considered a privilege rather than a natural right. Also, if you're a tourist, things Californians take for granted — how to use the phone system here, how much and who to tip, how to order food, how to decode quintessentially American addresses such as "10511 E. 12th St.", or how to pronounce "Nikon" the uniquely American way — can be bewildering or intimidating.

This site is an informal guide to how to survive — and ultimately enjoy — driving in California. It is aimed mostly at tourists and foreigners who are traveling or moving to California; it could also be useful to non-Californian Americans contemplating driving in California.

On Route 395, Owens ValleyThe site's emphasis is not so much on what to see or do, or the various driving laws and regulations (although it touches on all of those things), but on idiosyncrasies and unexpected or little-known things. It focuses on the sort of information, tips, warnings, etc., about driving in California that I would have found useful when I moved here from London all those years ago. For example, if you're not used to it, the fact that few Californians bother with turn signals when turning or changing lanes can be distressing; knowing this before you encounter it can be helpful. The Guide also touches on a number of related topics such as tipping, sales tax, how to order food, and how to use the phones here, that while not strictly to do with driving, would also have been useful to know when I started driving around California and the rest of the western United States.

The terms I use are mostly American or at least Californian; there's a short guide to California-Speak in a later section for translating these to and from the British or Australian equivalents. The guide is also somewhat biased towards Northern California and the San Francisco Bay area, mostly because that's where I live.

Please remember that this guide is aimed mostly at non-Americans — some of the information here will be very basic if you're American or used to American ways. It's also a survival guide, not a fully-fledged guide to all the places you can drive to in California, or a lengthy dissertation on Californian culture and mores. Please also bear in mind that it's one person's rather idiosyncratic take on things — and it might not quite agree with you... (but I'd still like to hear about any factual errors or inaccuracies...).

Disclaimer: this guide is not a legal document — take any recommendations or advice here with at least a grain of salt. I am not responsible for your misuse or abuse of the law!

Navigation — Layout & Organization

If you haven't been here before, the best way to start is probably just to browse the site serially, using the "Next" buttons at the foot of each page. These will take you on a fairly logical tour of the site. If you're after the juicy bits, jump straight to the "California Driving Habits & Quirks", the "California Primer", the "Absolute Basics", or the "Californiaspeak" pages; the "Law" page is also probably immediately useful. Otherwise, just start with the Guide's main table of contents and see what happens!

This site is organized into the following main areas:

  • This Introduction, which tells you what the site's all about, how it's structured, how to navigate it, etc. There's also a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) section below which may answer some questions you might ask after reading the guide.

  • The main guide itself, starting at the table of contents, which contain the the meat of the web site, i.e. all the tips and warnings, American word usages, pronunciation problems, etc., that you hopefully find useful as a tourist or traveler;

  • The Other Useful Sites page, which contains an annotated list of related and useful web pages and sites.

  • The Test Your California Driving IQ! pages, a somewhat cynical chance to see how well you'll blend in with the locals while driving (you did know, didn't you, that using turn signals is a clear way to advertise that you're not from 'round here?!). Will get better with experience.

  • A page about me, the author, for those curious, and for those wanting to get in touch....

  • New! A photo gallery, the California And Nevada from The Side Of The Road tumblr, replacing the older Caldrive gallery.

Feedback & Comments

I welcome feedback — suggestions, comments, corrections, etc., but I'm the world's worst email correspondent. If you have any comments or suggestions, please email me through the get in touch page. Please note, though, that sometime in the (ever-receding) future I may try to publish this as a book or a book chapter, so if you don't want your suggestions to end up in such a book, please don't send 'em in (or at least tell me explicitly that they're not for publication)....


I make minor cosmetic or spelling (etc.) changes to this site every few months; major revisions of the guide usually appear every year or two. One day I'll get around to having a separate "What's New" page.


Some answers to the most frequently asked questions I get about the California Driving guide and site over the years:

  • Can you help me with a legal question or interpretation of the California Vehicle Code?

    Argh! I'm always amazed at how much email I get asking me legal questions or for advice on beating traffic tickets or settling arguments about the CVC, etc. Well, if it isn't already clear, I'm not a lawyer, and I'm hardly an expert on Californian laws or driving rules, so please consult a real lawyer or police officer or someone who knows those sorts of things for issues like that...

  • What's with the ads and sponsored links?!

    Well, something's got to pay the bills... I'm trying to be low-key with the ads, but in any case, I'm not responsible for their content, nor for the sometimes unintenionally-hilarious clashes between the ads and the surrounding text (Google's AdSense(tm) bot seems to be seriously confused by my site -- deserts are not desserts, guys...).

  • Where do the photos come from?

    I've taken all of the photos and images in California Driving (except for the various third party logos) and the associated California and Nevada From The Side Of The Road gallery over the past twenty years or so on the trips I've done through the deserts, mountains, valleys, and cities of California. Where do I find these sights? Mostly on the side of the road, of course, but some of these things are a little off the beaten track — I just stumble onto most of them by accident while looking for something else. For example, the dead-car-under-the-Exxon-sign heading this page resulted from a trip I took to Yosemite, hoping to do a few nice Ansel Adams-ish landscapes of El Capitan or Half Dome. But half way there, there was this car... and that's pretty much all I took, the whole trip. I guess nice landscapes are not really my cup of tea.

    For the record (since I get a lot of questions about this), nowadays I mostly use an old Nikon D300 DSLR with a bunch of different lenses, a Canon Powershot G11, and (inevitably) an iPhone (with Instagram, even more inevitably), but over the years I've also used a variety of cameras ranging from a battered Sinar 4x5 view camera through a couple of Pentax and Mamiya medium format cameras to a sturdy little Nikon FM2n.

    Full details and copies of the photos used here can sometimes also be found under my Around Jingletown photo blog, or at my semi-official HamishReid.com site.

  • What's the history of the Guide? Why did you write it?

    The Guide started way back in the late 1980's when I worked for a company (UniSoft Corp.) with offices in both London and Berkeley. I was temporarily transferred to Berkeley (Emeryville, really, by then) from our London office for what ended up being a stay of more than a year (after which I never really went back). Being the first Briton out here for the company, I ended up being the one who greeted the others coming over, and giving them the run-down on things like driving, tipping, eating habits, etc. Eventually I wrote it all down so I could just give visitors the written version and skip the rest. This version was a few pages long, and in Unix troff format, but it was very much the precursor to this Guide (it was even called "California Driving — A Survival Guide").

    Over the years as I worked in Berkeley and Oakland for other companies the Guide slowly expanded. By the early 1990's it was about ten pages long, but now in FrameMaker format. It was used for fellow workers, relatives, friends, etc. People kept suggesting I publish it, but I didn't have the time.

    By 1995 I had a web version, under my then-web site (or its predecessor). It was similar to the current version here, but smaller and less expansive. I didn't do any publicity for the Guide, mostly because I didn't have the time, but I kept getting comments and suggestions from people who stumbled onto it (several dozen serious visitors a week towards the end of this stage). The Guide kept growing and changing as a result of these comments and suggestions.

    In mid 1998 I decided to get the "caldrive.com" domain and give the Guide its own site. In the process, I spruced the thing up cosmetically and added things like the "Test Your California Driving IQ!" page, a cynical exercise in making fun of Californian Drivers (easy targets, for sure).

    More that a decade later I decided to put the photos and videos into the California And Nevada From The Side Of The Road gallery, since it's much easier to maintain and edit them that way (the gallery is currently done as a Tumblr).

    It's been downhill all the way ever since...

  • Can I download an all-in-one printable version of the Guide rather than having to print it from my browser page by page?

    I'm working on a PDF version of the Guide, but it's a very low priority. OK, I've been saying that for years, but if I get enough requests I'll definitely work on it.

  • Are you really trying to publish the Guide as a book?

    I'd like to publish the guide as a real book — and I get a lot of email suggesting that this would be popular, particularly in Britain, Australia, and Japan. So yes, I'm serious, but I'm also not putting a lot of effort into it — most publishers around here are simply not interested — it really needs to be published and distributed in Britain, Australia, etc. But if anyone knows any good agents or publishers, let me know....

  • Can I use images or text from this site for <whatever purpose>?

    In general, I'm happy for you to use images and text from this site for non-commercial or purely personal purposes without charge, as long as you don't alter whatever it is you take from here, and you credit me somewhere (but if it's just for something like your own personal screen saver or desktop background, just do it...). If you want want to use anything on this site for commercial purposes, or for something more extensive than purely personal work, please contact me.

  • Who are you? Just another Anglo-Australian living in Oakland or thereabouts... take a look at the "The Author" page for a fuller explanation.


Thanks to Atanu Ghosh for originally suggesting I write it all down instead of repeating it for every visiting UniSoft Gnome; to Nancy Blachman, Peter Wisnovsky, Jenny Schaffer, Jan Dreisbach, Michael Schippling, Dan Debrunner, Garrett Cheng, Jon Bright, Yvonne Zhou, Robyn Chan, Jeff Lichtman, David Comfort, Tish Davidson, Loren Seibold, Tom Tilley, John Tranter, Wayne Johnson, Drake Christensen, Andy Stone, and a cast of hundreds from all over the Web and the Usenet newsgroups ca.driving and rec.travel.usa-canada for proof-reading and helpful suggestions; and thanks to Brad White for the life-saving "big turn" / "little turn" advice billions of years ago in Oxford (or was it Sydney?).

Copyright Notice

All text and images here and on the caldrive.com site are Copyright © 2012 Hamish Reid unless otherwise noted; all rights reserved. If you want to use any images or text from this site for commercial reasons, please get in touch.

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Text and images Copyright © 2014 Hamish Reid, Oakland California.