Driving in US – 15 Things You Need to Know
- Drive on the right
- Driving with a foreign license
- Easy roads
- Automatic vehicles
- Speed limits
- Turning right at a red light
- No roundabouts roundabout here
- Interstate exits
- Different State driving laws
- Stopping at stops
- Numbered streets & avenues
- On-road markings
- School buses
The United States – a gorgeous place to hit the road
So you’re hitting the road in the USA? With its history as one of the world’s great frontiers, its dynamically diverse terrain, and its intersection of cultures from across the globe, this is a nation simply made for discovering via independent travel.
An amazing road network means that (provided you’ve got the time and a reliable car) you can criss-cross a nation as big as Australia with ease. Iconic road trips here include the 2500 mile Route 66 from California to Illinois, Blue Ridge Parkway from Virginia to North Carolina, and Highway 1 to Big Sur with its dramatic coastal views and sharp bends over vertiginous cliffs.
And even away from these type of headline road trips, automatic vehicles and (largely) simple street grids make everyday driving in the US an absolute pleasure too – so you’ll enjoy yourself even when making a simple intercity trip or tootling round your local neighbourhood.
But before you step in a car stateside (or even hire a car in America with Enjoy Travel), taking in a few essential driving tips will stand you in good stead. Which is exactly why we wrote you this blog – enjoy!
15 things you need to know about driving in the US
Drive on the right
Yup – the US is another country where you drive on the right-hand side of the road and overtake on the left. Which is a bit of a pain for Brits but great news for drivers from almost everywhere else in the world these days! Be patient in your first couple of outings on the other side and you’ll soon enjoy it so much that you feel like sticking to the right once you’re back in the UK. But don’t.
Driving with a foreign license
First off, anyone who drives in the US must have a valid drivers license from their own country. But driving laws are enforced at state levels, therefore some of them require you to also have an International Driving Permit (IDP) – this is reasonably cheap and the easiest place to buy it is at the counter of your local Post Office.
A few tricky city centres apart (hello Manhattan!), driving in the US is often easier and more enjoyable than taking to the road in the UK. Why? Roads are usually wider, less hectic and easier to navigate – with fewer roundabouts and other perplexing features. You’ll discover or rekindle a love for the wide open road here – especially in some of America’s most scenic states.
Most vehicles in the US are automatic. And unless you’re an old school traditionalist, chances are you’ll enjoy the convenience of not having to worry about changing gears and clutch control on the ‘wrong’ side of your body – let’s face it, there’s enough to focus on without all that! Who knows, you might even love your automatic experience so much that you trade in your stick shift when you get home.
Speed limits on interstates and motorways in the US can vary from 65mph to 70mph and sometimes drop as low as 55mph – make sure you check the signage to see what applies to your vehicle (it may be different for cars and other vehicles). Watch out for the lorries (or trucks, we should say) too – as you probably know, they’re restricted to 56mph in the UK but that’s not the case Stateside!
Turning right at a red light
Unless the signs indicate otherwise, you can actually turn right on a red light in the US. It does keep traffic flowing but proceed with caution and (obviously) only when the way is clear.
No roundabouts roundabout here
Are you a UK driver who hates roundabouts (especially those mind-boggling ones with multiple lanes)? You’re not alone and even experienced motorists can find them confusing and frustrating. The good news is that there are none in America. Or hardly any, at least – the Federal Highway Administration estimates that there are around 7,900 in total. This is negligible compared to 25,000 in the UK, so while you’re over there you won’t be driven round the bend!
Interstate highways are motorways that connect big cities in one state with those in another. Sometimes called expressways or freeways, they don’t have any traffic signals or stops – so you get where you need to go efficiently and get on and off using the exits. Regular exits are one mile apart, but in large metro areas they’re closer together, with A,B,C etc as the exit number. And there’s more – the numbers start at 1 when you enter a new state and go up by increments of 1 as you cross it, before resetting when you cross the state line.
Different State driving laws
Please remember that each state has slightly different driving rules. For instance, Alaska no longer requires that you signal at roundabouts, Arkansas prohibits driving with open containers of alcohol in driver and passenger areas and California doesn’t allow you to use wireless electronic communications devices unless they’re mounted to the windshield, dash or centre console area. You can find the official advice online for any states you’ll be travelling through.
Stopping at stops
At any stop sign in the US, you have to stop your vehicle before moving off. That means stop it completely – even if there’s no traffic anywhere in the vicinity and you can clearly see that you could simply slow down a little, then keep moving. This is a rule that’s enforced strictly across the Atlantic – if you’re caught breaking it, you’ll definitely get a fine!
Lots of drivers report that using a good GPS system really helps them whilst driving in the US. Why? Knowing where you’re going and being less distracted helps you focus on the road, you don’t need to hassle yourself (or your ‘co-pilot’) with unwieldy maps, it provides better road awareness at night and in poor visibility conditions at any time, and it keeps you right in terms of lane selection. Job’s a good ‘un!
Numbered streets & avenues
Pretty much every city in America uses a number system for streets. And while it might sound strange at first, it’s really straightforward once you get your head round it. The city grid is divided into north and south, divided by a central avenue. Streets run vertical on the grid and avenues are horizontal, with the distance between two streets and avenues being 100m (a city block). With central avenue and 1st street as your compass, it’s easy to find your way to any point and easily get back.
Although there are very few roundabouts in the US, there are lots of four-way stops. So how do you handle them? It’s quite simple really – the driver who gets there first has right of way and if two drivers arrive at the same time, the one to the right has right of way.
Road markings are a bit different in the US too. For instance, yellow lines designate the limit between two driving directions, while white lines indicate lane limits (there can be several in each direction). So basically, the bright yellow line is in the middle of the road and because you drive on the right, it should always be on your left. Remember that some US roads have an astounding number of lanes, so the yellow line is a crucial marker.
Because of their precious cargo, school buses should be treated with respect in any country. But you have to be especially careful around them in America. Big and yellow, they’re not easy to ignore, and when they stop to pick up children, you need to stop too – even if you’re in a different lane. The school bus will put its lights on to let other drivers know its intentions as early as possible, but the golden rule is that everyone stops when it stops – unless you want a hefty fine!