Tuesday, December 22, 2015

AZ Traffic School: It's Different Down Here

Once registration was over, the first thing he said was that he always held these classes in a hotel. At the end of the evening some of us would not want to drive. Anywhere. So we could spend the night. We all laughed politely. It seemed like such a lame attempt at a joke.

We all knew how to drive. We knew the rules and regulations, had likely been driving for many years, several of which had even been here in Arizona. This was just a handy way of getting that pesky little speeding ticket, illegal turn, or whatever minor offense off of our records. Because the first thing different down here was that taking the class eliminated the offense. MVD never got informed in the first place, never mind needing to get it "erased". Our insurance companies could never get the information for an excuse to raise our rates for the next 39 months, because after the class there was no information to be gotten. And hey, if anybody needed it, this could be repeated once a year.

Or we,  or our kids learning to drive, could just take it because it was a good idea. We'd learn things. Practical things. Finer points of interpretations of the law, as well as safer driving. Things that should keep us from ever being required to come back.

To emphasize that point, he handed out a test to fill out. We could even chat with our neighbors to discuss the correct answers. Really simple, right? We knew this stuff, had it cold, were positive about our answers, scratched our heads when our neighbors had different answers than we did and were just as positive about theirs.

Need I mention that we all found out what we didn't know? Even the people whose driving had happened solely in Arizona? And as an out-stater, long time commercial driver with approximately 2 million miles under my belt, but in another state, I was astounded at just how much of what I knew was wrong.

It truly is different down here.

Arizona is ranked as the worst driving state in the union. We have three cities that rank nationally as 1, 3, and 5 on the worst drivers scale. We haven't even banned texting while driving yet, though Tempe just put a city-wide law into effect to do that. Also no cells, no cameras, etc.

Do you know where the Tempe city boundaries are?

I have done enough multi-state driving to have  made a point of checking which of several laws are in effect where I plan to go. Right turn OK on red? Stay right except to pass? Pedestrian rights / obligations? Move over a lane to avoid emergency vehicles on shoulder? Lights on in the rain? Cell phone restrictions? Once I moved down here, I picked up a copy of the rules of the road before switching my license over to here, and read it, looking for differences. Aside from finding no cell phone or texting restrictions, I thought it was all pretty much the same. If you can drive there, you can drive here; that was my conclusion.

Half my test answers were wrong! Take speed limits. I tend to watch them closely. I also tend to watch other vehicles zoom past as they ignore them, particularly on freeways. I've seen posted speeds anywhere from 15 to 25 in school zones, 55 to 75 on freeways (where 55 means traffic flows at 65, barring accidents, and 65 means 80+), 2-lane streets from 25 to 30, and 4-lanes from 40-45. I found out I didn't actually know what the default speed limits were. For the record, school zones are 15, residential and business streets are 25, highways are 55, and freeways are 65 in the city, and outstate only increase to 75 where there is an actual physical sign that says so!

If you think this only matters when you can identify a squad car nearby, AZ can use undercover vehicles like Mustangs, invite you to race them from a stop by revving their engines, and tag you for rising to the bait. That undercover vehicle is even legally allowed to carry an out-of-state license plate. But who needs a cop when the state is putting cameras up all around, and has gotten savvy enough to take 2 pictures of any offending vehicle, one of the license in the rear, one of the driver.

Back to speeds. Any ticket more than 20 mph over the speed limit, or over 85 regardless, is no longer a civil (pay the fine) offense but a criminal one. Meaning life gets complicated. Any time they can write you up for three offenses at once, it's criminal. So if you speed, forget your seat belt, let a bulb burn out, do an illegal lane change or a sloppy rolling stop, any three, watch out! Even if it's just a "simple" speeding ticket, each community can set its own fine levels, so they can vary from just over $100 to over $600.

Think you know when you can legally execute a U turn? Think again. Any left turn sign either at an intersection, or within a block enabling, for example, entry to a shopping center actually prohibits a U-turn. The only legal U-turn is in a left turn lane without a sign.

They're hard to find.

You may as well take a legal left into a parking lot, turn around and come out, making a right turn to complete your directional change. Of course, when you are pulling our from private property like that parking lot or your driveway, you must first make a full stop. Sign or no sign. Full stop. Then you must yield to everybody already on the road.

But then again, left turns too are problematic. Yes, they're legal, except....

Understand there is no recognized vehicle right-of-way legally down here, So even if you have a left turn arrow and everybody, and I mean everybody else has a red light, and you're making a left turn, if you get involved in a collision it's your ticket! That holds even if the car which hit you had to break the law in order to do so. Your ticket! It's so bad that companies like UPS and Fed EX have their drivers all make only right turns. If that means passing your turn, taking three rights around the block to be able to go straight in the direction you wanted, it's still all just right turns.

Our instructor recommended that practice to all of us.

There is one situation where you are not at fault if you get hit while making that left turn in an intersection. At the green, pull forward and wait  for everybody oncoming to clear, even if they run a red light and you're sitting out in the middle of the intersection unable to move before your light turns red. When cross traffic gets their green, they are legally not allowed into the intersection until all traffic has cleared, including you who have been sitting there more or less patiently. If they start as soon as they get the green and wind up hitting you, it's their ticket, not yours.

That of course does wonders at erasing any crunchies or injuries they may inflict.

Four way stops are another example of there being no legal right of way. It is the usual requirement that if two arrive at the intersection at the same time, drivers yield to any driver on their right. Who also have to yield to anybody on their right before they can proceed. Who also must yield to any driver on their right, who must in turn yield to you. Any time  three or four drivers reach a 4-way, legally things proceed one car at a time. Not two and two as most of us are used to and is practiced despite the law down here. So when you're facing north and the southbound driver takes their turn, you are not also allowed to take yours.

It could easily be one of those little extra things to write on your ticket, or that gives a reason for you to be pulled over. You know, by that sporty Mustang with the California plates.

Not only are cameras in place for speeders, they are in intersections with sensors that note just exactly where you stop. Exactly. The legal procedure is to stop at the stop line, the first line you come to across your lane. It's back a few feet from the intersection, and you can't properly see cross traffic for that right turn you want to make on red once it's clear. So after your proper stop you may creep forward until you can see it's safe to make that turn. The sensors are set both before and after that stop line. If you didn't stop in time, the first one is triggered. The only way at that point to avoid a violation is to stop before making your turn and stay stopped. No matter if traffic thins and you could otherwise take that turn, stay stopped. Once you get a green light, the system resets and you can proceed without getting recorded.

Minnesota recently required drivers to move left - or slow way down if that lane is blocked - when an emergency vehicle with lights flashing is on the shoulder, extending the requirement to when utility vehicles are on the shoulder as well. Many states now have a version of that law. Down here, it's - you guessed it - a tad different.

Any vehicle stopped on the shoulder counts for the requirement for you to pull over. If the land next to the road is level and dry and the vehicle pulled off by 30 feet, it still counts! Not only that, they are still legally considered to be using the right lane whether they are partly in it or not. So the next lane over must be kept clear for them, and you need to pull over into the 3rd lane in order to clear them. Of course, you can slow way-y-y-y-y down in order to pass when you can't move that far over, should the desired lane be blocked, traffic be too fast or closely tailgating each other for you to maneuver in, or that 3rd lane not even exist.

There' a twist for crosswalks down here. Pedestrians rule in a crosswalk at all times. That's not different. But watch out for the color of the crosswalk lines. White is a regular crossing, meaning you may proceed once your whole side from curb to center median is clear. Yellow means  you're in a school zone, whether you noticed the signs or not, and you may not move across the crosswalk unless it is cleared of pedestrians from curb to curb.

Speaking of curb to curb, when emergency vehicles are approaching you with lights flashing, you must pull over. You think you know that. But many states say that on roads with a center median, if it's on the other side you may continue forward. Here you must pull over and stop whichever side of the road it is on. Even on a divided highway.

Try not to get rear-ended when you are the only one who knows the law.

We thought our instructor was joking when he said some of us might not feel like driving home after class was over. As he dismissed us, many of us weren't sure any more whether it was safe for us to be out there or not.

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