Ten tips for foreign drivers in Seattle

(Photo from Flickr by Alan Cleaver)

If you’ve ever driven a car in another country, you know how difficult it can be.

Street signs are in different languages and in some places you drive on the opposite side of the road. That’s not to mention different cultures of being polite or aggressive, and big variations from place to place in how closely drivers actually adhere to the rules.

With the rise of Uber and Lyft, more and more people who learned to drive abroad are making a living doing it here. And the combination of growing numbers of foreign visitors and immigrants in the Northwest — coupled with lackluster public transit options — means even more foreign drivers on Seattle streets.

It’s just as hard for a new arrival to adapt to driving in Seattle as it is for a Seattleite to get used to driving in Europe or Africa.

Mohammed Hassan, the director of First Pass Driving School in Renton — and an immigrant from Somalia himself, offered a few tips for newcomers on how to drive safely and successfully in the Emerald City:

#1 Good Driving is a Habit

No matter where you are, having good driving habits is the key to safe driving.

“People think that because they have a license they have a good habit,” Hassan said. “But in order to have a good habit you must form one.”

Know your strengths as a driver and fix your weaknesses. Good habits like wearing your seatbelt, knowing where you’re going before you embark, and putting your phone away will go a long ways toward keeping you safe.

#2 Know the Environment

Each place we drive has a different — and constantly changing — environment, which will affect your driving.

“Many people who come and drive in Seattle are not used to driving in the environment. It can be difficult,” Hassan said.

Do a little research to see where you are going and what you should know. Have others driven there and written about it? You’re going to want to be as prepared as possible in order to drive successfully.

#3 Be Attentive and Patient

Driver focusing on directions and attentiveness. (Photo from Flickr by Leslie Feinberg)
Driver focusing on directions and attentiveness. (Photo from Flickr by Leslie Feinberg)

Driving schools consistently preach that you should be a defensive driver. In order to do so you must be attentive and aware behind the wheel; prepared for any situation to occur at any moment. Hassan agrees.

“Human error causes many collisions,” he said.

According to the Seattle Traffic Report, in 2012 there were 11,581 collisions reported by local police departments. Hassan stressed that depending on where you drive, the right of way may change. Be attentive and patient when encountering these situations.

#4 Know the Basic Rules of the Road

“Where I come from, there are not a lot of stop signs,” Hassan said. “Really there are not many rules of the road.”

In Seattle there are. Adults are not required to take any driving classes before testing for a license but they are expected to know the rules.

For short term visitors the Department of Motor Vehicles recommends getting an International Driving Permit (IDP) from your home country prior to arriving in the U.S. — though as a visitor technically you can drive for up to a year using your foreign license.

Once you’ve become a Washington resident, you have just 30 days to get a Washington state license. If you have a license from Germany, South Korea or British Columbia you can get a Washington license without taking a new test. Everyone else has to start over as if they were a new driver.

#5 Check Your Mood

(Photo from Flickr by Madlyinlovewithlife)
(Photo from Flickr by Madlyinlovewithlife)

Your mood will effect how you will drive. New environments can cause stress, make sure that you are confident in your ability and know where you are going.

“Staying calm and being confident will make you a better driver,” Hassan said, adding that one way to reduce stress is to print directions and review them before getting on the road.

#6 Be Cautious when Driving in the Rain

Seattle is known for its rain. Everyone should be used to it by now, but traffic still tends to slow to a crawl when it’s raining.

Rain impairs vision when driving, but if you are equipped with the necessary tools and knowledge it does not have to be trouble. When driving in the rain give extra space between you and the car in front of you.

If you do encounter rain after a rare Seattle dry spell, be cautious of the road-becoming slick as it tends to do after getting wet after a longer than usual period of dryness. Take the sharp turns a little slower and be extra cautious. Always assume traffic will be stopped around the corner.

Everyone loves seeing the open road and going 60 MPH but beware that especially in the rain anything can cause traffic to slow. Be aware of the traffic slowing around the corner or over the overpass that you cannot see.

#7 Mind Pedestrian Habits

Depending on where you drive in Seattle, pedestrians will either wait for the walk signal or walk when they see open road. Downtown is a busy pedestrian area and people are not always patient when it comes to waiting to cross. Always anticipate having to stop or slow down before taking a turn or crossing an intersection.

The danger of texting while driving is getting a lot of attention these days, and the same goes for walking and texting. Walking pedestrians are attached to their phones playing games, listening to music or texting. Because of these distractions, many times they do not look up when crossing the street. Be attentive and make sure to see pedestrians even if they do not see you.

#8 Remember Downtown One Way Roads

(Photo by Ryan McGuire)
(Photo by Ryan McGuire)

If you look at a driving map of downtown Seattle you will notice that every other road is a one-way street going the other direction. This can become very confusing for someone unfamiliar to it trying to find a specific location. Drivers can take free left hand turns from the middle lane on a red light.

In my experience the best way to drive through downtown Seattle is to review a map or directions before getting on the road, and planning your route based on where one-way streets are.

Look out for the dreaded “One Way” sign before taking a turn, to avoid being the one driver going swimming upstream into oncoming traffic.

If you are honked at, don’t panic, stay calm and decide where you are going to go. It can be very easy to get turned around downtown. If that happens, just pull over and ask for directions — someone will be able to help point you in the right direction

#9 Respect Bike Lanes

When driving around downtown and Capitol Hill you may notice what the smaller green or white lanes or green boxes near an intersection are for. Those bike lanes are one of the newest additions to Seattle’s roads. In 2012, Seattle Department of Transportation reported that 34% of all cyclists use biking as a mode of their daily transportation.

The three most important tips for sharing the road with cyclists:

Give the cyclist 3 feet of space when driving near them. Crowding their lane is dangerous for you and them.

Second, be patient. Yes we all have somewhere to get to, but that doesn’t mean you should tailgate a biker. Wait until it is safe to pass the biker or until they are able to ride in the parking lane.

Third, always check your blind spot before crossing a bike lane. Every car has blind spots and bikes fit into them very nicely. The extra check will help to ensure the safety of you as a driver and the biker.

#10 The Seattle Freeze Applies to Driving Too

(Photo by Atomic Taco)
(Photo by Atomic Taco)

Have you heard of the term the Seattle Freeze? The Urban Dictionary defines it as “A superficial friendliness that greets newcomers,” noting that “The city of Seattle and/or its outlying suburbs are generally not friendly, socially aloof, introverted or cliquish, thus making the city area difficult to make social connections on all levels.”

Now apply this to driving in Seattle: While at first it may seem like no one uses their horns and everyone is overly gracious at four way stops, don’t worry, this politeness wears off quickly in stressful situations. People will use their horns and get stingy when it comes to merging and occasionally unleash some furious pent-up rode rage. Try to keep a sense of humor and don’t be afraid to use your horn — maybe not to the copious amount it’s used in Manhattan or Cairo — but don’t forget it’s there when you need it.

1 Comment

  1. Seattle is the most different place to drive that I have ever been. I have driven in most large cities from LA to NY. Here is the thing with Seattle. Street planning and layout is the worst I have ever experienced. It is not uncommon to see 6 streets/avenues come together at one corner. Which of the 6 streets does the green light belong to? Streets are narrow and out of alignment. Add to this, the hills and blind intersections, and way too many vehicles – I think every person must own a vehicle (and 2 pets). However, with all of the above, Seattle has the most courteous drivers I have ever experienced. So courteous, it is actually confusing at times. Like waiting, without honking the horn and waving you to go first, and they actually give bicycles the right of way! Really. I just think of it as a city of confusing streets with parking in any direction legal, but about 3 million people who either have good manners or have just thrown up their hands in submission to it all.

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