Adjustable Steering Wheels
Many cars in America and Canada have the facility to adjust the angle of their steering
wheels. There is usually a release lever on the underside of the steering column
which has to be pulled or pushed before the angle of the steering wheel can be adjusted.
This lever is often close to the emergency flash control and could perhaps be confused
Many cars have driver and front passenger air bags which will inflate violently
if the car experiences a collision. Due to a number of very serious injuries caused
by air bags there is now a call from safety organisations for car manufacturers
to install a switch enabling them to be disabled but I’m not sure how far
this move has progressed. Air bags are said to be especially dangerous for children
and short people, who are advised to sit in rear seats if an air bag is fitted.
Almost all rental cars in the USA and Canada have air conditioning, which you’re
very likely to need in summer. As in buildings, you will need to close all the windows
in order to make the air conditioning effective. The air conditioning control will
often be marked “AC” or “A/C”. In many cases two levels
of air conditioning are available, labelled “Normal” and “Max”.
It is quite normal for the air conditioning unit to drip some water onto the road
after being used.
Automatic Transmission (Automatic Gearbox)
All normal rental cars in America and Canada have automatic transmission, which
is very easy to get used to provided you remember that when in gear, forward or
reverse, the car will creep unless you keep your foot on the footbrake.
Most automatic transmission “gear levers” are floor mounted, while in
a few cars they are on the steering column although this is very rare nowadays.
For those not familiar with automatic transmissions, the positions of the “gear
P – Park – engages a pinion which acts as a brake.
Never push or tow a car with the automatic transmission control in Park.
R – Reverse – the car will creep backwards unless you
have your foot on the footbrake.
N - Neutral – use this position if the car has to be pushed
O – Overdrive – for driving on fast roads. This position
is not present in most cars.
D – Drive – the normal position for driving; the car
will creep forwards unless you have your foot on the footbrake.
2 – Hold in second gear – occasionally useful should
you ever need to use the engine as a brake when descending a steep hill. This position
is not present in some cars.
1 – Hold in first gear – same as 2 but for even steeper
hills and/or slower descents. Sometimes marked as “F” for First.
A button at the side of the level must be pressed by the thumb
in order to move it.
In order to avoid damage, the automatic transmission mechanism will often not allow
you to shift from “D” to “2″ or “1″ when you
are travelling above a certain speed.
Other possible safety interlocks, which may or may not be present, include not being
able to shift out of “P” unless the ignition key is inserted and turned
to “On”, not being able to shift out of “P” unless the footbrake
is being pressed, and not being able to remove the ignition key unless the lever
is in the “P” position.
In a car with automatic transmission there is no clutch pedal. The right foot should
still be used for both the accelerator and brake pedals.
Central Locking And Remote Locking
Central locking is common on cars in the USA and Canada, although this is usually
operated by pressing a button on the inside of the driver’s door rather than
by turning the key in the door lock. Remote locking is now fairly common on larger
cars. Look for the remote “clickers” in the glove box or in a brand
new car in the boot, perhaps in the spare tyre compartment.
Cruise control is commonly found on larger cars. When the cruise control is switched
on the car will automatically maintain any desired steady speed, although this will
usually decrease or increase to some extent as you ascend or descend hills. The
slightest touch on the footbrake will cancel the cruise control; there is also a
button on the cruise control itself to do this. If you accelerate, for example to
overtake another vehicle, then the car will automatically return to the cruise control
speed afterwards. On the wide open straight roads of America and Canada, with very
low traffic levels, cruise control is a viable and useful facility. If you don’t
feel confident using the cruise control then you can just ignore it.
Daytime Running Lights
I have seen an unofficial mention that all new cars sold in Canada since 1989 have
daytime running lights – in other words their headlights are switched on whenever
the engine is running, as is the case in some Scandinavian countries.
Very occasionally one comes across road signs suggesting that headlights be switched
on even in daylight over a certain stretch of highway. I presume that in most cases
these signs are in areas where fog or dust is a common problem.
Many cars have devices for holding soft drink cans or cups. Large plastic cups of
soft drinks often have a narrow section at the bottom designed to fit these holders.
Drink holders are often found inside the armrest between the front seats. You may
need to experiment to discover how they unfold. In new cars the drink holder may
still be packed inside the glove box, the armrest or maybe the boot (possibly next
to spare wheel). You may also discover some other useful accessories such as a spare
key or remote door lock “clickers”.
The law says that you must never, ever, have an open alcohol container inside the
car. All alcohol containers are best kept in the boot.
Driver’s Position and Pedal Positions
Since the rule of the road throughout the USA and Canada is to drive on the right
(except in the US Virgin Islands), the driver sits on the lefthand side of the vehicle.
However, the accelerator is still on the right and the foot brake in the middle.
Since all normal rental cars in the USA and Canada have automatic transmission there
is no clutch pedal and the different position of the driver doesn’t take long
to get used to. The right foot should be used for both the accelerator and brake
Becoming familiar with a left hand drive manual gearbox car might take some time
though – there might be a tendency to attempt to change gear with the windscreen
winder on the door (not that there would be one – most rental cars have electric
Electric external mirrors are common. Controls vary, but sometimes you need to rotate
the control clockwise or anti-clockwise to select which mirror to move, then use
the control as a joystick to actually move the desired mirror.
Electric windows are common on rental cars. Finding the controls and figuring out
how they work can sometimes be a bit tricky, especially as you often need to lower
the driver’s window in order to show your rental agreement when exiting from
the rental car depot immediately after picking up the car.
Most cars have a pull up handbrake lever (called a “parking brake” in
the USA and Canada) located between the front seats, as is found in the majority
of UK, European and Japanese cars. However, in a few rental cars you may find the
parking brake operated by pushing a foot pedal located under the dashboard, high
up on the extreme left hand side, and released by pulling a handle also located
under the dashboard. These parking brakes are only meant to be used when the car
is parked on a steep slope – normally the pinion engaged when the “Park”
position of the automatic transmission “gear lever” is selected is sufficient
to act as a brake. By the way, using the automatic transmission Park pinion instead
of the handbrake is the reason why you often see American and Canadian cars “lurch”
a little after stopping, when the driver takes his or her foot off the footbrake.
Hatchbacks are relatively rare in the USA and Canada, especially amongst rental
cars. Nearly all US and Canadian rental cars are saloons (sedans) with a separate
Most rental cars are supplied with only one key. Check in the glove box, armrest
and boot to see if there is a spare. If not, you can usually get a duplicate key
cut at any Wal-Mart or K-Mart for less than a Dollar, except perhaps for very new
cars for which they don’t have a blank, in which case you will need to visit
a locksmith and pay slightly more. Keeping a duplicate car key on your person can
avoid a major incident should you accidentally lock the key inside the car.
Modern cars with immobilisers have sophisticated keys whose electronic functions
cannot be easily duplicated. However, a simple duplicate key mechanical key might
enable you to gain access to a locked car with the original key still in the ignition.
All normal rental cars in the USA and Canada take the least expensive grade of unleaded
petrol which is universally available.
Petrol Filler Cap and Boot Release
On a few cars the petrol (gas) filler cap is hidden behind the rear number plate,
which hinges down to reveal it.
The controls for releasing the petrol filler cap and the boot from inside the car
can be in the form of mechanical levers situated beside the driver’s seat,
or alternatively in the form of electrical push buttons located inside the glove
Power Assisted Steering
Power assisted steering is common on all but the smallest cars. If the car should
stall, then the power to the power assisted steering will be lost. This can be very
unnerving as the wheels become much harder to turn and you may easily be fooled
into thinking that something catastrophic has happened to the steering mechanism.
Radio/Cassette Player/CD Player
Almost all rental cars have a radio, and most medium and large rental cars have
a radio/cassette player. Audio cassettes are completely compatible throughout the
In the summer of 1998 we had a rental car with a radio/CD player for the first time,
but this had no cassette player. Original audio CD’s are compatible throughout
the world. Most modern car CD players will play CD-R disks, and possibly CD-RW’s,
but probably not CD’s with music in MP3 format.
Rear Window Wipers, Washers and Heaters
Since most rental cars are saloons with a separate boot, their rear windows are
normally too shallow to have wipers or washers. However, the rear window is normally
heated. If you are used to driving a European or Japanese hatchback with a rear
window wiper and washer, the lack of these features will probably strike you as
an extremely serious safety deficiency.
Safety and Warning Interlocks
Due to the very considerable car safety lobby in North America and the equally considerable
risk of car manufacturers incurring heavy damages through class actions from people
injured while driving their products, many American and Canadian cars have various
safety and warning interlock systems, for example:
- You may not be able to start the engine unless the automatic transmission
is in “Park”. If nothing happens when you turn the ignition key, or
the key won’t turn in the lock, then this is the first thing to check for.
- You may need to press or pull a button on the steering column next to the ignition
switch before you can turn the ignition key. However, don’t confuse this button
with the alarm flasher button or the steering wheel tilt adjustment release lever.
- The starter may not operate until you press the footbrake.
- The starter may not operate until the driver’s seatbelt is fastened.
- The starter may not operate if any door is not fully closed.
- You may not be able to shift the automatic transmission out of “Park”
until you press the footbrake pedal and/or the engine is running.
- You may not be able to shift from Drive into 2 or 1 (hold in second or first gear,
to use the engine as a brake when descending a steep hill) when travelling above
a certain speed.
- You may not be able to open a door or the boot if the engine is running.
By law the driver and all passengers, in both the front seats and all back seats,
must wear seat belts at all times everywhere in the USA and Canada.
On some cars the shoulder straps of the front seat belts automatically move out
of the way when you open the doors and then move back to their normal position when
the doors are closed. Do not attempt to move the mechanism of these seatbelts yourself
as you may damage it.
This is one accessory which won’t come with the car but which you might consider
purchasing. Sun shades are “concertina” folding cardboard devices which
you put up inside the windscreen when the car is parked, so as to keep the internal
temperature of the car down in summer. The other major advantage of such a shade
is to keep the temperature of the steering wheel down to a level where you can bear
to touch it after the car has been parked in the sun during the summer. These shades
are widely available at a very low cost at shops such as Wal-Mart and K-Mart.
Sunroofs are surprisingly rare on rental cars in the USA and Canada, probably due
to the very genuine need for an opaque roof in order to shade a car’s occupants
from the intense rays of the sun during the summer.
A buzzer or chime may sound if the car’s computer thinks that you need to
take some action, for example:
If you forget to switch off the lights before taking the ignition key out.
- If you forget to remove the ignition key before opening the driver’s door.
- If you forget to fasten the seat belts.
- If you hear a buzzer or chime, always be sure to investigate the reason for it.
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