USA car hire driving tips

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 with it.

Air Bags

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.

Air Conditioning

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 lever” are:

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 or towed.

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

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.

Drink Holders

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 pedals.

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 windows).

Electric Mirrors

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

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.

Handbrakes

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

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 boot compartment.

Keys

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.

Petrol

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 box.

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 world.

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.

Seat Belts

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.

Sun Shade

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

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.

Warning Sounds

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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