So, if you’ve recently arrived in the Bay Area from Canada, you have probably noticed a number of things related to automobiles. First, folks drive really nice cars. Really, REALLY nice cars. Second, you see vintage cars in perfect condition, lovingly taken care of since they were purchased off a lot 20, 30 or 40 years ago. Third, it appears as though lots of folks want a vehicle that is large. VERY large. You see lots of full size SUVs on the road (Lincoln Escalade anyone?) Finally, (even if you’re from Toronto and have suffered the 401 for years), you probably find the traffic insane.
The automobile is a big part of American and Californian culture - Los Angeles is a city purpose built around individual mobility and mass transit. Here in the Bay Area, public transit is spotty at best (try getting from San Jose to Oakland by public transit!). Commuters spend a lot of time in their cars in this State - if you commute an hour a day to and from work for 10 years, you’ll spend the equivalent of 2.5 work years in your vehicle, so comfort matters.
In the 25+ years my family and I have lived here, we’ve noticed a gradual escalation in the quality of automobiles we see on the road - in part because the area has gotten more wealthy, and in part because folks’ expectations about their comfort while driving has increased as they have to spend more time in their vehicles. Cars are less expensive here than in Canada and brands that are luxuries elsewhere (e.g. BMW, Audi, Mercedes) are priced competitively. Additionally, although the average length of ownership nationally is about 6 years, we know many folks here, particularly those that spend a lot of time commuting, trade their car about every 3 - 4 years.
The mild weather means that cars last a lot longer here than they do in Canada (except maybe Vancouver), so you’ll see older cars in amazing shape. Old Mercedes, Corvettes, Woody Wagons, VW bugs, Mini Coopers. This also means that used car prices are higher here than in Canada and cars will run longer with higher mileage - Jennifer and I buy used cars that are 5 to 10 years old with 80,000 to 120,000 miles on them. In most of Canada, the equivalent car would be a rust bucket (I owned one or two of these when I lived North of the 49th!) but here they are in excellent shape.
If you’re in the market for a new vehicle, it is worth taking some time to compare an outright purchase to financing or leasing a vehicle. Dealerships will offer these three modes of acquisition for new cars and for some used cars. They will often provide a warranty on used cars that you can purchase for an additional sum.
Leasing gives the ability to trade up every few years and eliminates any hassle with maintenance (the leasing period is often tied to the length of the manufacturer’s warranty) and as a result of this regular trade up, you’ll always have access to the latest technology. However, leasing comes with its own issues: a.) You need excellent credit (or the leasing rate will be high); b.) You cannot customize the vehicle; c.) There are strict mileage and usage limits, which can be expensive to break; d.) You may have to buy additional “Gap” insurance; and e.) When the lease is done, you do not have a vehicle to continue using.
Insurance in California is a different animal than it is back home. The State requires that drivers have insurance (no surprise to law abiding and risk averse Canadians but a somewhat new idea), but what is required is extremely low. Specifically, you are only required to have:
$15,000 for injury/death to one person.
$30,000 for injury/death to more than one person.
$5,000 for damage to property
These figures are super minimal and open you up to litigation if you are in an accident with an underinsured driver. Paradoxically higher insurance coverage will make things less messy if you get into a situation and you need to use it - the countervailing party is less likely to come after you if they know your insurance company has a lot to lose and will fight them hard. Ask your insurance broker what coverage levels they recommend and do a little research before you decide.
Like Canada, you can get either collision or comprehensive coverage for your vehicle to cover damage from theft, fire or other events - it can be pretty pricey here, because this is a populous, diverse state and an expensive place to live.
I strongly recommend two additional pieces of coverage. First, you should get “Uninsured Motorist Coverage” - this covers injuries and damage to you and your car if you have an accident with another motorist who has either no coverage or only very low amounts. Our son (now 24 years old and not rocketing around quite so fast these days) was hit by a vehicle while riding his motorcycle here in Alameda a number of years ago and it was our uninsured motorist coverage that paid most of his hospital bills. Second, whether you own or rent your home, get a general liability umbrella policy - your broker can advise you on the size (I believe we have a $1 MM policy). This will cover you in the event of legal action around an accident (we’ll do a post on the all American sport of litigation in the next few weeks.)
The Interstate highway system, started after the war, based on inspiration that Eisenhower took from the German Autobahns, is a pretty amazing piece of civil construction. I have driven pieces of it all over the country (except Alaska) and I do see some stylistic differences in how folks drive. Californians will regularly do the “Zipper” when entering or exiting the freeway (alternating which lane gets access), folks drive fast, with confidence and I see a fair number of folks driving in the High Occupany Vehicle (HOV) lane when they shouldn’t (I suppose the chances of getting ticketed are small).
Speed limits are a strong suggestion and a speeding ticket can be expensive but the general flow of traffic varies by route. The I-5 down to LA at 85 - 90 (I’ve had California Highway Patrol pass me at that speed); 880 is more like 70, as is 280. Non interstate highways (e.g. 17 over to Santa Cruz or 120 up to Yosemite) are posted at 55 and the CHP will nab you if it is a slow day and they need to meet their quota on speeding tickets.
In most cases you can contest tickets in court and often will be offered the opportunity to do traffic school to avoid getting points marked against your licence and reduce the chances of an increase in insurance premiums; a total hassle but worth doing.
The HOV Lane
It is very handy and worth getting a FasTrak pass to use the newly metered lanes if you do a lot of commuting. As well, getting into the City from the East Bay during rush hour goes a lot faster if you pick up casual carpools so you can use the lane and a fair number of folks I know have purchased electric vehicles largely so that they get a sticker that lets them drive in the HOV lane without additional passengers.
Accidents suck no matter where you have them. For simple fender benders you should exchange info, take lots of photos and get on your way (The local police or CHP will not bother to come if called). Auto insurance companies are remarkably efficient at processing smaller claims.
If you are in something more serious (significant damage, injuries), you’ll get excellent service from EMTs and the highway patrol and get hit with a lot of paperwork (both from the police and the hospital); if you can, photo document as much as you can. You should expect to see a number of juicy bills related to ER services - your health insurance plan will help you figure these out.