18 February 2009

Driving and kids

So here in Australia we drive on the left. Sensibly, they do so in the UK and Ireland - so it isn't that challenging to make that transition. 

Much of the rest of the world drive on the right, with the car steering wheel on the left, and the gearstick on the right of the driver, and the windscreen wiper and indicator levers switched over. This takes some getting used to. Driving straight ahead is fine, but turning corners (at intersections) is a major intellectual challenge to prevent turning onto the wrong side of the road. Learning to drive a car in "mirror image" is enough of a challenge without having to deal with kids as well.

On our trip to the USA and Canada, I drove from Albany in New York State to Quebec City, Canada through Vermont - and back. I picked up the car at Albany airport and it was pouring with rain. We also pretty quickly faced the horrific "spaghetti" of the freeways on the fringe of the city. Not a great start for basically a jet-lagged learner driver with two kids in the back. So how do we manage it?

1. The driver makes the rules, and all the passengers follow. The first rule (for the first day at least) is: no talking until I say so. That way I can concentrate on reading signs, taking directions from the navigator (a person that is, not a piece of electronic equipment) and generally finding my way. If travelling through the countryside, I tend to relax this rule after a little while - once I'm a bit more relaxed. But even then, talking must be quiet - and definitely no bickering or whingeing!

2. Have something for them to do. We pack a small bag of activities for them to do for the aeroplane, and this doubles as in-car activities. Books to read (though be wary of car-sickness), colouring-in, puzzle books, soft toys for imagination games etc. all make great diversions.

3. Towns and cities need concentration, especially when searching for accommodation or trying not to get tangled in the maze of streets that make up every medieval walled city in Europe! Kids need to understand that they are being helpful if they are quiet at this time, and that things will go much more smoothly if they co-operate. Our kids were extremely helpful in this regard when I got entangled in the streets of Seville and took ages to find my way out. They knew I needed to concentrate, and were extremely helpful in keeping the noise down in the back seat so I could get out of the maze.

4. Take breaks. This is as good for you as it is for the kids. Driving is tiring - Australians know this because we are accustomed to driving long distances. Get out of the car. Get some food. Find some grass or a park and let the kids run around. Kids cope with long drives so much better if they can have time to run around, rather than being cooped up in a car for hours and hours. If you are getting at all frustrated (whether because of the kids or some other reason), you need to take a break for your own sanity and driving safety.

5. If they're old enough, have the kids follow the trip on a map. They might like to work out how far there is to go, and be able to identify the towns along the way. They might be able to work out where you need to turn off the freeway in order to enter a town. Have them look out for parking spaces too - these can sometimes be difficult to find.

6. Try to never drive in really horrendous cities. That's why we picked up the car in Albany, and not New York City. Nor did we drive in Paris. We've driven out of Rome once, and into London (to drop off the car) on another occasion and learned from both experiences: just don't do it. It is not worth the stress. If you do, try arriving on a weekend. We serendipitously found ourselves driving into London on a Saturday and found the traffic - though bad - was better than it would have been during the week.

7. Learn to drive before you go. I drive a car with an automatic transmission at home. In Rome, we hired one with a manual transmission (to save money). In retrospect, I should have spent the extra and saved myself a huge amount of angst. I bunny-hopped that car out of Rome (with the police behind me laughing at my driving), and took 17 changes of lights to get it moving through one set of traffic lights in Tuscany. And I got it stalled under the toll barrier on the autostrada. Memorable experiences, but highly stressful.

8. Hire the smallest car you can for the number of passengers and luggage you have. It will be easier to find parking spots for it, and will most likely be more fuel efficient. A big 4WD or SUV is completely inappropriate in Europe: you will get stuck in the towns.

And if you're still not game, book organised tours - or get yourself a chauffeur!

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