Tips for driving in Austin

Here are some pointers for those new to Austin and trying to drive around town. These come from things I have found odd or visitors have asked me about over the years. I'm not a world traveler by any means but I have driven all over the Midwest including Chicago, down to Florida, around Texas, in Colorado, Hawaii, and several cities in California including about a months stay in L.A. In almost 30 years of driving, I think I've seen a lot of what people tell me the worst places to drive. Austin is a melting pot of people from all over the US and even many from outside. As I have discovered in the time I have lived here (since 86) some of the worse drivers in the world have migrated here. (See Cell Phones.) With the added plot complication of many different, often conflicting, styles of driving. The interaction of all these styles seems to make people gravitate to certain types of driving behavior. In general I think drivers fall into the 3 types below. When I refer to Austinites below I am referring to common behavior of both type S and F drivers.

Types:

Austin drivers tend to come in three flavors.
R)reasonable drivers, in my view at least, they tend to drive the speed limit to 5 over. If the weather is bad slower of course. These are maybe 20% of the drivers.
S)low Those who think the speed limit is reserved for emergency traffic only and therefore drive 5 to 10 miles per hour under the speed limit. These are about 50%
F)ast Those that drive as fast as they can without actually running into something. Typically 10 to 40 miles per hour over the speed limit. For some reason many of these people drive Ford Mustangs. This seems to be an Austin thing since I've not noticed Mustang drivers be that more reckless than the norm else where. In Austin if there is some one plowing through rush hour traffic like they a cop on their tail and a dead body inn the trunk, about 7 out of 10 times it will be a Mustang. These make up the remainder (30%) of the drivers.
Note:Austintes seem to think speed makes up for lack of acceleration. Even type F drivers often accelerate slowing from a light and then find they must get up to 10 or 15 mph over the speed limit to catch me a couple miles down the road when I have stayed within 5 mph of the speed limit.

Lines:

Austinites will cross over lines even on (or especially on) a back road blind curve that twists through the trees so tight you can not see a 100 feet down the road. Extra points if it's dark and you can just make out lights coming the other way.
This is also true of double left turn lanes. When I left Indy, I think we only had one double left turn lane in the whole county. After seeing how Austinites handle them, that was probably a good thing. Double lefts can greatly increase traffic flow through an intersection but here it seems about half the time the guy in the lane next to you, does not matter right or left, forgets he is in a double left and starts fading into your lane. Funny they could forget when you consider the traffic is so heavy at many of these intersection when I'm at them that I have set through the light changing at least twice.
Austinites don't only ignore lanes while driving. You will often find them walking down the middle or on the left side of an isle in stores or the lanes in the parking lots too.

Spacing:

A reasonable driver will try and leave space between himself and the car in front of him. In Austin however, this is taken to mean that you want to be passed or are leaving room for people to jump in front of you. As in offering cuts in the line you are probably in. You will find it's safer and your brakes will last longer if you close ranks. At least in heavy traffic.
A reasonable driver tries not to sit next to another car when it can be avoided. In Austin and I must admit some other places I had driven there seems to be a magnetic effect with passing cars. A car will come up on you fast, even in another lane, but as it gets closer to you it slows till almost matching your speed. Sometimes it even takes a maneuver on your part such as speeding up and then rapidly slowing to shake one of these cars loose. Once free, these cars will speed away. I've had people suggest to me that this is an illusion but it is not consistent enough to be an illusion (some people do just fly on by)and that does not explain having to shake some of these cars loose.

Waiting:

Austinites do not like sitting in lines. Probably because the roads here are so congested that there are many of lines to wait in. The common answer to this problem is to go around the line, on the shoulder if necessary, to get near the front of the line and then push their way into the line counting on the fact that the person they just cut off can not afford to get their insurance rates increased. I should note here my car insurance almost exactly doubled when I moved here from Indy. At the time a town of over a million people and I lived inside the city limits. Austin at that time was less than a half million and I lived on the out skirts of town.

Lights:

Austinites don't use turn signals and to survive the Austin drive the reasonable drive should avoid them too. At least when changing lanes. Take this all too common example. You are driving down Mopac. It's 3 lanes each way and you are in the inside lane. The middle lane is moving faster. This is Austin after all. A space is coming up. (See Spacing.) Now in the outside lane there is a car about at blind spot angle or a little farther back. There maybe some one in front of them but believe it or not, for this example it will not matter. As space comes up to where you can get into it, meaning the guy in the outside lane has already had a shot at it, you turn on your turn signal. The guy in the outside lane will immediately jump into the open space and then pull up even with you and match YOUR speed. Not only closing the hole but also slowing down the people behind him. If you had instead turned on your signal as you were changing lanes this would not happen. It makes no sense but I seen it happen regularly and this is Austin reasonable driving rules do not apply.
You will also notice people pulling out of parking lots often do not have a turn signal on. A reasonable driver might assume this because the only rational way for them to go is to the right. Many times thought the real reason is they want to turn left or get across all 3 to 5 lanes of traffic to get to the left turn lane. This also why many drivers may be reluctant to let you out of a parking lot if you do not use your right turn signal.
I guess that brings up another one. Austinites tend to leave by whatever exit is closest to where they parked. The fact that they want to turn left and there is a traffic light 50 feet further on will have no effect on this.
There is one good use for your flashers.If someone is in front of you doing 10 mph under the speed limit or slower, turn on your flashers to embarrass them into speeding up or getting out of the way.
As for headlights, Austinites don't use them till it gets dark enough that they can no longer see. They don't seem to understand headlights are mainly for being seen.

Lanes:

A reasonable driver will tend to get in the lane going the speed he wants to go. In Austin though even the slow drivers tend to hang in the left lane. I've even seen people stopped in the left lane with their right turn signal on, close to an intersection, waiting for the traffic to stop and allow them to get over so they can get over and turn right at the intersection. Not I am not making this up. It generally happens because people get in the left lane and then slow down when they want to get in the right lane causing people to past them on the right. Which causes them to slow down even further untill they have to stop to keep from missing their turn.
Austinites don't seem to understand that the trick to passing someone is not to be in their lane while you are doing it. They also have a tendency to stay in a lane once they get there. Especially the left lane and especially the type F drivers. I've seen many people driving along at a good clip to come up against a type S driver in the left lane and no one the middle or outside lanes. The type F driver will follow the type S driver very closely till one of them looses this test of wills and changes lanes. I've seen this last for miles but by then I've usually gone around and am watching in the rear view mirror. Note being passed tends to break the will of the type F more often than the type S of course. Also note I have seen this exact same scenario carried out in the outside lane.
Passing can change the type S into a type F in the blink of an eye as well. If you find yourself stuck behind a type S, pull into another lane even if you know you can't get around. They will often which to a type F and speed up.
Elsewhere you will see people entering turn lanes and exit ramps start to slow AFTER changing lanes. Assuming of course that the lane is not full. In Austin it is quite common for people to slow or even come to a full stop before entering a turn lane and cutting their speed to that of the exit ramp before ever even turning on a turn signal (see above) much less starting to change lanes.
One reason for this might be that turn lanes, especially right turn lanes are a rarity here. For example they recently put a light in where a county road runs into a major road. Soon after the added a 2nd left turn lane off the county road onto the major road. They did this buy repainting the road so now not only is there no right turn lane for the return trip, but the lane you turn into on the county road is very narrow indeed. BTW the speed limit on the major road at this intersection is 65 mph. So the many cars that take this route hove to slow to almost a complete stop, in a 65 mph zone, so they can make this turn.
This is probably a good place to mention the paving habits of the road crews here. They seem to like to pave a lane for miles before going back to pave the other lanes. They will also start in the middle if there is a left turn lane and work their way out instead of starting on one side. I'm not sure of their intent on this but out come is it maximizes the area for you to screw up your suspension on.
I suppose this one goes here too and again I've seen this one elsewhere. Austinites are big on pulling out into an intersection, or street if coming from a parking lot, to wait for a large enough opening. This of course slows or even sometimes stops traffic that now needs squeak past the car taking up part of the lane they are driving in. People in Indy are big on something similar to this. They pull out and then notice you are coming so they stop dead in front of you. You then have to stop and wait for them to figure out if they are going to proceed or back up out of your way. I guess this is a milder variation of that.

Fires:

This might just be because of the population density in town. But in the summer in Austin you find vast areas of burned grass along the road ways were people have thrown out lit cigarettes even though it may have not rained in months. Oddly out side of town where there is more grass to burn you see this much less frequently. So I have to wonder. Do city dwellers hate grass?

Police:

Most Austin drivers break when seeing a police cruiser. It does not matter if it's moving or parked or if they are doing 20 over or 10 under the speed limit. They hit the brakes. I hear many people complain about being pulled over here. I've been driving greater Austin since 86. I've been pulled over 3 times. Once for speeding that I flat out deserved. Once because my stickers were about 6 months expired. (She did not ticket me by the way.) And once in a speed trap in Cedar Park. Seriously click HERE for info. I find if you drive responsibly you don't really need to worry about getting stopped. If you stay out of Cedar Park anyway.
UPDATE:Cedar Park Police seem to be patrolling further and further outside the city limits so you might need to avoid more than Cedar Park proper.
Another tip:If there is a line going the other way at a light on a road where there is usually isn't one, consider going a different way. It most like means the road is blocked some where down the road you can not see. For example the other morning on the way into work I turned onto the country road we use to bypass 1431 and 183. (An intersection that is so far behind as to have lines a mile or more in most directions at it for most of the day.) Cars were lined up to come off this country road but there was no problem as far as the eye could see. I turned down the road anyway and drove close to 2 miles before finding 3 police cars blocking the road. Still no reason to be found for them being there. I assume there must have been some accident around the curve. As you can imagine the line at the light continued to grow since that light is not timed for the level of traffic. Since there is only one intersecting road between where they were parked and where I turned on, not to mention 3 of them you would wonder why at least one of them did not turn around cars back at that intercection. But then it was not their commute having and extra 15 to 20 mintues added to it.

Cell Phones:

I live a ways out but at the same time I can take main roads most of the way into town. So for my various jobs I've commuted 20 to 40 miles each way. Recently I started adding up the number of times someone has done something stupid enough for me to have to react quickly to stay out of an accident. What I like to refer to as a near death experience. I seems to me that these happen on average of about 1 every 10 miles or so. According to friends it's not the way I drive but that I attract bad drivers like moths to a flame. Your drives may not have as much adventure as mine. But the point is I noticed about 2 years ago when all the uproar about cell phones causing accidents started, that most of these people that came close to hitting me were not using one. Many drivers were using them just not the ones I was worried about. As time has marched on though I've noticed more an more of them are on the phone. So my theory is not that the cell phones are making drivers bad. It's that bad drivers are buying more cell phones. Personally I think if you can't talk and drive at the same time you are probably not skilled enough to be behind a wheel in the first place. Maybe if we put those driving simulators in the license branches and made people talk while they took the tests, public transport would have enough customers that our tax dollars would not have to prop it up. And those that can drive would have a much nicer ride to work. Just a thought.

Brakes:

Austinites break many times that make no sense. As in going over a hill or over pass for example. Also if it even looks like rain they will break more frequently. Oddly enough after an ice storm I found many of them would see a patch of ice on an over pass and instead of braking before getting to the ice they would brake on the ice. Austinites tend to treat wet roads like people up north treat icy roads. Even most of the type F drivers tend to drive slower than necessary. But a few of the type Fs will drive faster to help balance things out. If there is ice on the roads your best bet is to either leave before people think of risking or just stay home till the roads are dry. This is Austin after all. It's usually in the 70s within 36 hours of an ice storm.

Parking:

I have been told I left out one major aspect of driving in Austin. Namely finding a parking spot. First I should explain that while Austin does have a Texas feel that it also can be described as an island of hippies in a sea of red necks. To that end you have 2 factions of drivers. Those going for the Texas size vehicle, as in if does not have 6 tires and 4 doors it is considered compact and those that think smaller is better. Some how most of the parking seems to have been laid out by the smaller is better group even though most of the vehicles on the road are at least full size SUVs and larger. Many places my Montero (considered a mid size SUV here) my tires are almost touching the outline of the parking spaces on both sides. The up shot of this is that it is common to find a truck taking up 2 or more parking spaces. To make things worse other than at the malls you often find there are barely enough parking places even if everyone only took one.

Horror stories:

I do what when the light turns green? Updated 12-31-69 (12-31-69)
Black Toyota pickup in Cedar Park Updated 05-30-11 (05-30-11)
Just waiting Updated 05-30-11 (05-30-11)
A Classic Case of Ass Hole Sense of Entitlement Updated 05-30-11 (05-30-11)
New stories in web log

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