Driving in the US

Sam Bisby

By: Sam Bisby

In just over a week, I shall be partaking in a fortnight of driving across California and Nevada in what will be my first time on the road in the United States.

While I am thoroughly looking forward to the whole experience, I am feeling slightly wary of driving in the US having never done it before. Obviously this has resulted in some comprehensive research on the matter and thought I would share my findings with anyone else who needs to know the rules of the road in the US, or are perhaps just curious in the differences between their road system and our own.

So, here are the essentials when it comes to driving in the US, plus some other tips when at the wheel in the States.


Driving in the US - New York

It is vital to know that in the US, each state is allowed to have its own driving laws; therefore, you will need to consider the route(s) you will be taking and make note of state-specific rules.

Otherwise, there are general road standards across the whole of the US to abide by, while other factors are advised for foreign drivers to consider. For example, it is a legal requirement that UK motorists driving in the US carry both parts of their driving licence (paper and photocard) – you will need them to rent a car in the first place. However, while it is not vital, it is suggested that all drivers apply for and carry with them an International Driving Licence, as it could come in use in some states (compulsory in Florida).

Driving in the US - Open Road

Ensure you also carry with you the insurance documents from the rental company, and any other paperwork you have I regards to insurance, at all times in case of an accident. In addition, the minimum age for driving in the US is usually 16, but some states don’t allow independent driving under the age of 18 and it is a legal requirement in every state that every occupant wears a seatbelt; meanwhile, it is illegal to have a child under the age of four in the front seat.

Speed limit signs are well posted along most roads in the US, and although some states differ from others, sticking to the national limits will almost always have you covered. Motorways (Freeways) are similar to our own and have a 70 limit, but this speed is often well enforced by the authorities, so keep an eye on your speedometer. Larger roads outside built-up areas (highways) have a 65mph limit and residential areas are strictly 30mph; however, the more rural the area, the higher the limit will tend to be.

The following are some quick tips for driving in the US that will help you blend in a little better:

  • You can turn right at red lights (unless signage says otherwise); just make sure you come to a stop first and check the coast is clear.
  • When arriving at a crossroad, the one to the junction first has right of way; if you arrive at the same time, give way to your right.
  • Carpool or HOV lanes can be a great way to avoid congestion, but only use them in accordance with the law and should only be used when travelling with a certain number of passengers.
  • Always stop for school buses when their lights are flashing and are stationary at the side of the road.
  • Pay BEFORE filling up with fuel.
  • Pay close attention to the car in front, as US cars’ indicators flash in a similar red to brake lights.

General tips for driving in the US

Driving in the US - Golden Gate Bridge

  • Always plan your trips ahead of time, that way you’ll feel more confident when out on the road.
  • A sat-nav is advised if travelling long distances and through large cities.
  • Get accustomed to your car before setting off; learn where such instruments as the indicators, lights and washer/wipers are.
  • Parking is very similar to that of the UK’s, but make sure not to park facing oncoming traffic, nor should you park up at a kerb painted yellow or next to a fire hydrant.
  • If pulled over by police, remain seated in your car until the officer gets to your window and then do as instructed.
  • Fuel prices differ from state-to-state and are cheapest in the southern regions and most expensive in California.

Highway signs

Driving in the US - Freeway

The US Interstate Highway System works in a similar manner to our own in that signs are colour coded to indicate what they mean, but then elements do differ in that an interstate’s number will be a reference to which direction the road is going (even numbers for east-west and odd for north-south).

Colours and what they mean:

  • Green with white letters – route information that indicate places, distance and exits. Usually found overhead or on the roadside.
  • Blue with white letters – hospitality signs that indicate rest areas, food, hotels, hospitals, petrol stations and where the next toilet (restroom) is. Less common in rural areas.
  • Brown with white letters – heritage signs that indicate historical attractions, entertainment attractions, campsites and national parks. Some but not all tell motorists which exit to use to reach them and are vital for tourists.
  • Red or orange – indicate caution/danger/stop instructions which must be acted upon or you could endanger others reacting to the signs. A blinking red light means the same as a stop sign and an upside down triangle means crossing traffic has priority.
  • Yellow – indicates caution and a blinking yellow light means proceed with caution.
  • White with black letters/numbers – regulatory signs which must always be obeyed.

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