There is nothing I love more than exploring somewhere new. Especially if that involves getting off the beaten path and leaving the hordes of tourists behind. However, finding the hidden gems often only happens because we have the flexibility to follow Google down obscure paths and roads down which no public transport would ever venture. Doing just this, is how we found the amazing Peričnik Waterfall in Slovenia and the Medula Roman Gold Mines in Spain. However, driving a car abroad does come with its challenges.
For starters, I am from the UK, which means that I have to drive on the other side of the road pretty much everywhere I go. Luckily I grew up in Spain, which makes me somewhat ambidextrous when it comes to driving on the right or the left. However, getting in on the right side of the car still remains a struggle! The other thing that is a struggle is figuring out what the road rules are. The written and then the unwritten ones!
This blog post aims to provide those of you planning to visit the US with some tips on how best to adapt your driving to the US roads while providing light tongue-in-cheek reading! The below are my observations and not legal recommendations!
Different states have different rules
If you visit the UK, you just need to read the Highway Code, and you will know the rules for every eventuality. The same goes for pretty much every other country I have driven in. Apart from the US, that is! Driving in the USA requires you to know the specific rules for the state you are in. If you are visiting Orlando, for example, then this isn’t so much of a problem, as you will likely not leave the state of Florida. Therefore you only need to learn the rules that apply to Florida. Having just spent two weeks there, I am not sure there are actually any rules… or at least none that people obey!
However, if you are driving around the USA like me, you might start jumping from one state to the next. For instance, you can turn right on red in some states but not in others. Neighbouring states can have different rules, yet you can drive from one state to another without realising it.
In New York, Virginia, North Carolina, Nevada, and California, you can’t turn right on a red arrow, but in all other states you can. Confusing or what?!
How do I work around this? First, I hope that there is always someone in front of me to copy. And if not, then I wait until someone honks! Patience always appears to be low, so you will soon be told if you are doing it wrong!
Beware of the time differences
If you think the changing rules are confusing, wait until you drive across a time zone. I was driving from Florida to Alabama and had not realised that Alabama was on Central Time Zone while Florida was on Eastern Time Zone. As it happens, my journey was very short. I was in Tallahassee and my meeting was only 30 minutes away. So you can imagine my confusion when I arrive at my appointment, look at my phone, and it is telling me it is 30 minutes earlier than when I left my hotel!
Luckily Google is pretty good. When you start your route it will tell you that you are crossing time zones.
The speed limits are decorative
I realise that breaking the speed limit is customary in many places, but never have I seen it done to the extent it is done in the USA. At times I wonder whether they are actually the minimum allowed speed! I have to say, they are very low. On the highways (like our UK motorways and dual carriageways), they are often 55 or 65 mph. The average speed of both cars and trucks (lorries to us Brits) is 80 mph! I am not lying. The speed at which the trucks drive is terrifying! The other day I got overtaken by one of those “wide load” trucks! You know, the ones that in the UK go really slowly and have a convoy of cars with flashing orange lights because the cargo takes up more than one lane? Yes, one of those overtook me, and I was not exactly going slow!
Now, just because everybody speeds in the US doesn’t mean speed limits aren’t enforced. I don’t believe radar speed cameras are particularly popular, but there are certainly a lot of patrol cars that have a field day pulling people over and fining them. Be careful, the fines are doubled if you get caught in roadworks, especially if workers are present. There are also other stretches of highways where fines are doubled. There is always a signpost making you aware if this is the case.
Green means GO, Amber means GO FASTER!
In the UK, when the light is turning red, it goes from green to amber and then to red. The time it spends on amber is generally relatively short, so most people slow down when it goes to amber and come to a stop. Unless, of course, it isn’t safe to do so or if you are an amber gambler!
Beware of coming to a stop too early in the US though! Or you might end up with the car behind you sitting on your back seat!
The lights remain on amber for much longer in the US than in the UK, which means people put their foot down to get through the lights when they turn to amber. The first time I came to an amber light, I automatically came to a standstill only to find myself stopped with the light was still amber and a very angry car driver behind me! However, in Colorado, they seem to turn red faster. Yeah, no chance of getting it right!
I’m not suggesting you should become an amber gambler, and certainly do not run a red light, but beware of stopping too soon!
4 way stops – what the…?
I come from the land of roundabouts, a method that keeps everything moving smoothly most of the time. Therefore the idea of a 4 way stop is probably the most alien of all the road rules I have encountered while driving in the USA! A 4 way stop is like a roundabout but in reverse. Instead of giving way to the car you would cut up (like on a roundabout), you instead give way to the person who would cut you up (the person to the right).
Actually, that is only true if you all arrive at the 4 way stop simultaneously. The theory is that whoever gets there first goes, which actually means it moves along pretty smoothly as you pretty much get there, stop, and then go. And if ever in doubt, give way (but be prepared for a honk from the person behind!).
Whatever you do, do not overtake a stopped school bus!
When the school bus pulls over in the UK, you are free to pass so long as it is safe to do so. Do not do this in the US! You will notice that the yellow buses will have a stop sign on the left-hand side. When they approach the bus stop, this sign will pop out, and you are to stop, even if you are on a dual carriageway!
It’s illegal to put gas in your car in New Jersey
I always feel a little bit of trepidation when filling up a car with gas (or fuel for us English lot) when in a new destination. How this is done seems to vary considerably between countries. In Spain, there is generally an attendant, but you are OK to fill it up yourself. However, whatever you do in New Jersey, do not put gas in the car yourself! It is illegal! Every station has multiple attendants that will fill your tank up for you. You just hand over your card or cash and remain inside the vehicle!
I believe it is correct etiquette to tip the fuel filler-uppers, which becomes awkward if you aren’t carrying any cash! Lesson: always have real money on you when in the US!
Beware of what fuel you put in!
In the UK unleaded is the green hose and diesel is the black hose. It is the other way around in the US! I very nearly made a very expensive mistake! The good news though is that most pumps only have unleaded, and most cars run on unleaded. The other benefit is that you actually have to press the button for what you want dispensed (which is how I realised I had the wrong nozzle, as nothing was coming out!).
Red indicators and big blind spots
Indicators are red, and the mirrors are distorted, making it quite hard to know what is happening around you. Having grown up with orange indicators, red indicators never get my attention in the same way. There also seems to be a problem with people forgetting to switch their indicators off. It happens to the best of us, but I’ve never seen it happen anywhere else as often as it does here. I would happily place a bet that on my next 1-hour drive I will see at least 10 cars that have left their indicators on despite having no intention to turn.
The other thing that gets me is that the mirrors are distorted, making the other cars look closer than they are. The problem with this is that the magnified mirrors reduce the visibility of what is there as it covers a smaller area and therefore increases the blind spot. Has anyone got a good explanation for why they do it?
You can overtake in any lane you want
Apparently, you are only meant to overtake on the left-hand lane (the fast lane). However, nobody seems to obey this. Cars and trucks whizz in and out of lanes like scenes from a TV cop chase! Most states have some kind of law that mandates that slower traffic should keep right and allow faster vehicles to pass on the left. This is another scenario where the law is somewhat different in each state.
For example, in South Dakota, only slow-moving vehicles need to keep right. Yet, in Massachusetts, it is prohibited to pass on the right. Other states seem to have a hybrid approach, like Michigan, that says to keep right unless there is heavy traffic or if the freeway has three or more lanes.
Again, my approach is to copy what everyone else is doing. I have to say, it is pretty refreshing being able to pass on any lane as well as not feeling guilty about hogging a specific one.
Americans are lovely… until they get in their cars!
People often ask me where I have experienced the most generosity on my travels, and I have to say, it is probably the US. Free lifts, free accommodation, free food, and lots of conversation. However, when these lovely people get behind the wheel, they become demented maniacs!
If you make a mistake, you will know about it, not just because of the loud sound of their horn as they press against it with all their strength. But likely because of their flailing arms and unheard explicit, you will undoubtedly manage to lip-read.
But even if you don’t make a mistake, they will still not let you out. You might need to merge, and thus you put your red indicators on. In the UK, more often than not, someone will flash you to let you know you can join their lane (unless they are driving a BMW, in which case you will need to wait for them to pass). In the US, they will just keep driving past unless you force your way out. Of course, it might just be that they can’t see the red indicators so easily, or maybe they just assume you have forgotten to turn them off like the other 10 cars they have just passed!
Don’t engage in road rage
This is a valuable tip for any country you are in. However, the number of deaths resulting from road rage is significantly less elsewhere than in the US! Between 2016 and 2020, on average 22 people were shot due to road rage. Not 22 people in 4 years. That, to me, would be shocking enough. Not even 22 people a year. On average, 22 people get shot a month as a result of road rage!
So when someone cuts you up, take a deep breath and let it go. It’s not worth a bullet to the brain!
Don’t get distracted by all the billboards
There are over 2 million billboards on the sides of US roads. Whether you are driving, listening to the radio or watching the TV, one thing you will notice is that there are 100s of adverts. Consumerism is rife, like nothing I have seen anywhere else.
Some states have prohibited billboards. These include Maine, Vermont, Alaska, and Hawaii. But if you are travelling anywhere else in the country, then be on the lookout for funny billboards. The best one I have seen so far was for a liquor store that said: “Alcohol is cheaper than therapy!”.
The most important rule for driving in the USA: Make sure you study the actual rules before you pick up your hire car
I am no expert. Although there is some truth in all of the above points, I did not take my test in the US, and I have only been driving here for 4 weeks. Therefore, take these tips as my tongue-in-cheek observations, not as gospel!
If you will be driving in the USA, I recommend you familiarise yourself with the state laws for whichever states you will be visiting. Knowing what you are doing is definitely the best way to stay safe and get maximum enjoyment!
Happy USA travels!