We've all done it -- hopped into the rental vehicle, started it up and headed out into the streets. Then, in the midst of airport traffic with buses bearing down on you and taxis nearly swiping you, you're trying to read utterly illogical signage as you start groping for knobs, headlights, windshield wipers, window controls, defroster/heat controls or the radio seek button.
As you get your bearings, you find yourself making every error of every bad driver you've ever hated. To safely find your way into the big bad world in your next rental car, follow this guide.
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Check for scratches, dings or tears. If the car rental agent is circling your car with a pad making notes of scratches and blemishes, make sure you do the same. I've rarely failed to find a scratch or two that the agent missed, and if they're going to hold you to this process, you should do the same in return. Don't be afraid to take pictures with your camera or smartphone.
Start the car. Although it wastes gas and pollutes, you might find that allowing the car to warm up is a good call. This affords you the opportunity to make sure the car is running fairly well, with no strange noises. Although most people take a good look for scratches and dings so they won't be charged upon return, they rarely check how the car is running.
Find and turn on heat/air-conditioning. This will allow the interior to heat up or cool down, depending on the season, while you get your bearings. A dark blue Neon is going to be blistering hot in the summer. Turn on the air-conditioning and let the car cool down while you continue your orientation program.
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Consult your map. Car rental lots are often inconveniently located in the outer reaches of the airport loop road organism. If you take a wrong turn out of the lot, you may find yourself back at baggage claim before you know it. Most car rental agencies will give you a map of the area that pinpoints the location of the rental lot; take out and consult this map, and formulate your intended route out of the car rental void and into the world. Next, hand the map to a copilot if you have one, who can conceive any enhancements to the plan.
If you have a GPS, this is the time to set it. But we always recommend having a map as a back-up.
Fix your mirrors. A quick adjust to the rear view won't do it -- you've gotta deal with the side mirrors. If you're traveling with someone, he or she can help. This will save you some heartbeats when you first have to merge into heavy traffic.
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Figure out the radio. Despite the nonessential nature of the radio, this may be the most important step. In fact, more accidents are caused by drivers tinkering with radio dials than using cell phones. (In my case, the only accident I've ever caused occurred when I rear-ended a police car while rooting around for a cassette tape.)
For the quickest approach, turn on the radio, figure out how to program stations into memory, find the seek button and move on.
I encourage you to take your time with this -- although the corporatization and franchising of radio has rendered the public airwaves almost uniform from coast to coast, some vestige of regional character remains at both ends of the dial and on both bands.
Find the window controls. When you arrive at the first toll booth and you're fishing around for the controls, and doors are clicking open, windshield wipers are going on and off, and rear windows are going up and down, you'll thank me for saving you the embarrassment.
Find the turn signals. This one is usually pretty straightforward, and will be exactly where you expect it to be. With all the ergonomic "improvements" to auto interior spaces that have forced me to write this article, the location of the directionals has changed very little since I was learning to drive.
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Find the windshield wipers. Do this before you figure out the lights. As the sun sets, you'll have plenty of time to discover how to turn the lights on and off. If it starts raining suddenly, you'll be frantically hitting buttons in search of your wipers.
Locate the lights. This is a two-step task.
1. Find the on-off switch. When an approaching police car starts flashing its lights at you to turn on your own lights, you can now do so before the cop is past you and he won't turn around and pull you over.
2. Figure out the high beams. When you turn on your lights and the high beams are on, you can now turn them down -- you can also give a "thanks!" or a "go ahead, I'm lost" flash to the guy who cuts you a break when you're trying to figure out how to drive this high-tech Neon.
Find the fuel latch. Save yourself the embarrassment of popping open the trunk during your first fill up at the pump by figuring out where the fuel cover latch is right now.
Check the emergency brake. Is it on? You don't want the car rental employees to pick up the smell of burning brakes even before you leave the lot. Find it and release it.
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Put the car in gear and head for the exits.
Head out the driveway and into the world.
Say, "Darn it, which way do we go again? Where's that map? How do you put this window down? Could you fix that mirror?" Repeat.
Got it? Remember, it can get worse -- there's driving on the opposite side of the road.
The Independent Traveler