A Guide to Driving in the USA
The first rule of driving in the USA for tourists is the same as it is for driving in any unfamiliar country: don’t panic. Sure, they do things differently in America but the fundamental aspects remain the same; drive sensibly, drive safely and remain alert.
Let’s start at the beginning. If you’re picking up a car in America there are two points to note straight away. Firstly, the car will almost certainly have an automatic transmission, and secondly it will be a left-hand drive.
Americans drive on the right-hand side of the road. If you’ve driven in Europe you’ll already have a useful head-start as to what this is like, but bear in mind that not only will you be on a different side of the road, you’ll also be on a different side of the car.
Preparation is everything.
Unless you’ve driven in America before, don’t assume you can just jump into your hire care and hit the freeway. In fact, you’re probably better off avoiding the freeway altogether until you have a bit of USA driving experience under your belt.
Get insurance for your hire car and keep the documents safe. Virtually every American state requires you to have car insurance.
Obtain as much information as possible from your car-hire agency. Ensure that they familiarise you with your car, ask them all the questions you need answered and don’t leave before you know enough about the car to be able to drive confidently.
As your first destination after car pick up is likely to be your accommodation, see if your sat nav can find a sensible route that avoids freeways (we’ll come to freeways in a moment). If you don’t have sat nav nominate a navigator and ensure you have a detailed and up-to-date road atlas for the areas you’ll be travelling.
If you have directions from your car hire point to your accommodation familiarise yourself with them as much as you can.
Know your American Road Signs
In similar fashion to British road signs, American road signs are colour-coded depending upon their function. The commonest types of road sign you will encounter are these:
Any red road sign indicates the need to stop or proceed with caution. An inverted red triangle means ‘give way’. Red signs must be obeyed and should not be ignored or treated in cavalier fashion; if you are unfamiliar with driving in America accidents are definitely best avoided and traffic penalties can be harsh. Also be aware that a flashing red light means ‘stop’ in the same way as an ordinary red light.
Green background, white lettering: these give you information about your route and indicate place names, distances and upcoming exits in much the same way as their British equivalents. These signs will generally appear at the roadside or overhead.
Blue background, white lettering: information about services on the route such as petrol (gasoline) stations, rest areas, restaurants, hotels and hospitals. Keep an eye on your fuel: the US is huge, and distances between petrol stations may be more than your tank will allow if it isn’t sufficiently full.
Brown background, white lettering: these signs indicate places of interest and visitor attractions, pointing the way to campsites, places of historic interest, theme parks, and national parks etc. Usually they will give information about the distance to the attraction and the appropriate exit.
Yellow sign, black lettering: this is telling you to proceed with caution. These signs are usually seen in areas where there may be small children, such as a primary school, or on routes where wild animals such as deer or even bears may be encountered on the road.
White sign, black lettering: these signs contain a regulation or law which has to be obeyed.
Some basic rules of the road
Driving laws differ from state to state, but if you observe the following rules you should stay on the right side of the law.
- If in doubt, assume that the maximum speed limit is 55mph/88kph
- If you encounter a school-bus (usually yellow) with flashing lights, STOP. It is illegal to pass a school bus that is picking up or dropping off passengers.
- Observe instructions to reduce your speed (usually to 20mph) around schools.
- Make way if possible or slow down if not, for any emergency vehicle.
- At a four-way crossroads with stop signs, drivers proceed in order of arrival. If two or more drivers arrive simultaneously, the driver on your right has right-of-way. As with any junction, bring your car to a halt for a second or two before proceeding.
- To avoid fines, be aware of bicycle lanes and HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lanes and don’t drive in them.
- Avoid flashing your headlights out of ‘courtesy’ to another driver. Whilst a quick flash of the lights is generally interpreted as a ‘thank you’ in the UK, this is not the case in America.
- Always stop for pedestrians who step out into the road, whether at a pedestrian crossing or not.
- Everyone in your car must wear their seatbelts at all times whilst travelling.
Hitting the Freeway
Freeways, like British motorways can get very busy. This can be disconcerting at the best of times, but for the first time driver in America who already has to contend with an unfamiliar automatic vehicle, sitting on an unfamiliar side of the car and driving on the wrong side of the road, the prospect of freeways may be daunting.
Initially, it’s best to plan routes that avoid freeways until you’ve got a handle on how American driving works. Once you have sufficient confidence though, and are ready to join the freeway, there are a couple of things to bear in mind.
Firstly, undertaking is perfectly legal on the American freeway. This means that you are liable to be in one of four or five lanes with traffic speeding past you on both sides and zipping from lane to lane both in front and behind you, seemingly at random.
Sitting where you are and hoping for the best is not the best strategy, particularly if your exit is coming up and you’re in the wrong lane. Don’t automatically head for the fastest lane either unless you know exactly what you’re doing.
Your best bet is to stay on your toes and go with the flow – but safely. Apart from the undertaking, freeway driving is little different from motorway driving.
Secondly, try to avoid the tendency to drift to the right of your lane; it’s a habit common in UK driving where it isn’t a great problem but in America you may find yourself getting just a little too close to the vehicle travelling alongside you.
Of course, there’s plenty more to learn but armed with the basics, common sense and an adventurous spirit you’ll be happily driving down the American blacktop in no time at all.
This was a guest post by John for Alamo car hire USA with pick up locations across the USA.