U.S. Rules of the Road

Updated

Whether visiting or moving to another country, it is crucial to familiarize yourself with the traffic laws that surround you. No matter what your intentions are toward driving, learning the rules of the road will keep you safe in an unfamiliar nation.

Some rules in America vary from state to state (and even in some larger cities). These differences can pertain to signage, speed limits, and the punishments for breaking certain laws. However, if you choose to drive when visiting or moving to the United States, there are a number of key regulations that apply across the country.

Good to know

It's useful to know that the general attitude toward driving in the US is one of adventurous spirit. The idea of a "road trip" is part of the American way of life and having a car and taking a drive is an activity that people in the US embrace as a pastime. It is something a family might do on a weekend, or something a couple or individual might find themselves doing just for fun.

While there is sometimes an aura of relaxation and leisure about the driving experience, traffic laws in the U.S. are rather strict and straying from these can cause serious trouble. In addition to arrest by police, the insurance structure means filing civil suits against others is very common. A small infraction or accident can prove disastrous.

Therefore, it is crucial to truly understand all the rules. That way, if you are put in a stressful situation you can react accordingly without hesitation.

Some General Driving Rules in the US

There are many rules to know. Before we go into some of the most important ones, you should reference your state's motor vehicle department to get a handle on any questions you may have.

That being said, a few things to remember when driving include:

  • Steering wheels are always situated on the left side of the car.
  • Always drive on the right side of the road.
  • White lines separate lanes of traffic traveling the same direction.
    • Hashed or broken lines means you may change lanes when it is safe.
    • Solid white lines mean stay in your lane.
  • Yellow lines separate traffic moving in opposing directions.
    • Hashed or broken yellow lines mean you can carefully pass, paying attention to oncoming traffic.
    • Never cross a solid yellow line (or double yellow line).
  • When turning left at an intersection, pass in front of any cars that are turning left from the opposing direction (Do not try to pass behind them).
  • Use the left lane to pass other cars traveling your direction.
    • Do not pass in the right lane unless absolutely necessary.
    • If you are driving in the far left hand lane and someone would like to pass you, move over to the right lane when it is safe to do so and allow them to pass.
  • You must ALWAYS yield to pedestrians.
    • Come to a complete stop whenever you see pedestrians trying to cross the street.
  • Never pass a school bus if it has flashing red lights. Wait until the lights have stopped.
  • Be aware of bicyclists. Often they share the road with cars and are supposed to also follow general traffic laws.
    • Be particularly careful about driving in cities with bike lanes -- always check before turning that a bike is not coming.
  • It is mandatory to pull over or stop at an intersection to allow an emergency vehicle to pass you if you see one traveling with lights flashing and/or a siren running.
  • Do not overuse your car horn. Horns are used almost exclusively for emergency situations or for when you feel unsafe.

Road Signs and Traffic Signals to Watch For

Road signs and traffic signals in the US are likely unfamiliar to you if you've come from another country. While many are relatively self-explanatory, some can be more confusing if you haven't taken the time to study them before you drive.

In addition, laws that surround traffic lights may be different than those followed in other countries.

Road Signs

Stop Sign: a red octagonal sign (generally with a white lettered STOP) indicates that you must come to a complete stop at an intersection.

  • Many intersections have two stop signs but oncoming traffic is NOT required to stop. Be careful when crossing or turning.
  • Right of way at an intersection with a four-way stop is determined by who has come to the intersection first.

Yield Sign: A white or yellow triangular sign indicates to allow oncoming traffic the right of way.

  • You must wait for oncoming traffic to clear before moving ahead, therefore, it is usually appropriate to slow down and check oncoming traffic before progressing.

One Way: A thin horizontal rectangular sign (usually white with a black arrow) indicates that you may only progress a certain way down a street - the arrow should tell you which way.

Speed Limit: these signs (usually a large vertical rectangular sign) say how fast you may go in miles per hour in a particular area.

  • Limits can change relatively often, even on the highway, so pay attention.
  • Sometimes these also indicate a minimum speed.

Railroad Crossing: Usually a large X or a pair of crossed train tracks.

  • May include the words railroad crossing or letters RR.
  • Lights and ringing should indicate if there is a train coming. If you reach a railroad crossing sign that does not have accompanying lights, come to a complete stop and check both ways before proceeding.

Parking/No Parking

  • Read all signs to make sure you are legally allowed to park. Many signs have a time limitation and there can be other restrictions like a necessary permit.
  • Some spots are only for handicapped drivers.
  • A curb painted yellow usually indicates no parking is allowed.

Traffic Lights

  • Generally with red, yellow, and green lights.
    • Green means you may go through.
    • Yellow means to slow down in preparation to stop.
    • Red means you must stop until the light changes.
    • A flashing yellow light indicates proceeding with caution.
  • It is legal to turn right at a red light unless indicated by a NO TURN ON RED sign.
    • Oncoming traffic has the right of way - wait until traffic clears before turning.
  • It is not legal to make a left turn at a red light.

Safety

Road safety rules are universal the world over, but in the US there are strict laws to back up some of these regulations.

  • Always wear a safety belt when driving or riding in a car.
  • Younger children must be in car seats or booster seats and cannot ride in the front passenger seat. Rules on this vary slightly from state to state, but are generally similar.
  • It is illegal to drink and drive in all 50 states. While punishments vary, .08% is the blood alcohol concentration that is the legal limit (roughly 2 drinks in an hour, but depends on a multitude of factors such as metabolism, weight, etc.).
  • Do not text and drive. Some states prohibit the use of handheld devices.
  • Headlights must be used in inclement weather or after sunset. In many states, if you are using the windshield wipers, headlights are also required.
  • Hitchhiking is generally illegal throughout the US. Do not pick anyone up who is asking for a ride.
  • If you have an emergency, call 911 to inform police.

U.S. Traffic Tickets and Violations

Traffic tickets can be received for many infractions including parking violations, speeding, or going through stop signs. Most tickets result in a fine which is based on the severity of infraction and local laws.

Some tickets may be given without you noticing. There is increasing use of cameras to monitor traffic. For example, if you go through a toll booth without paying, a camera will likely catch you and send a ticket to the owner of the vehicle. If it is a rental car they will add a ticket cost to your bill.

Paying a fee as soon as possible is good practice. Depending on the state you may be able to pay your fine online.

If Pulled Over By The Police

  • If a police officer asks you to pull over, or is running lights directly behind you, pull over immediately and stop on the side of the road where it is safe to do so.
  • DO NOT get out of the car unless asked to do so by the officer.
  • Keep your hands visible and on the steering wheel.
  • Keep license in a convenient location and your registration in the glove compartment so it is easy to access.

Types of Roads

different types of roads

There are many ways roads are referred to across the US, but the major categories amount to:

Local roads running through small communities and going into neighborhoods. These are generally small roads with low speed limits. While most are paved, some are dirt or gravel.

Collector roads generally are providing access to businesses or as thoroughfares for access from different local roads. Speed limits can vary. Collector roads sometimes go through small towns and the limit can drop quickly and dramatically. Be careful as these places are closely monitored by police.

Arterial roads are highly trafficked generally urban roads. Centrally located these drive traffic from collector roads onto major highways. Arterial roads often have traffic signals and signs to be aware of.

Freeways are the most highly trafficked roads and offer speedier travel since they have very little traffic lights and have higher speed limits. On and off ramps connect a freeway to an arterial road.

Tollways (or Turnpikes) are generally a kind of freeway (though not always) that require users to pay a certain amount for use. Fees are based on vehicle type and can vary.

  • Keep cash and change on you at all times if you are traveling toll roads.
  • You might want to get a device that allows for automatic tolls to be taken out via a transponder. They make travel easier and allow you to use automatic toll lanes.
  • Some rental car companies will rent one of these to you for a fee.

Tolls and Toll Violations

  • There are usually options to pay tolls either in cash to a person, machine, or via the automatic transponder.
  • Some lanes are only for those with the transponder device.
  • If you find yourself stuck accidentally in an automatic toll lane and you do not have the transponder, you will be in violation if you do not pay the toll.
    • You may be able to pay online within a certain amount of time without getting an added fine.

These are just some of the many laws and regulations you will want to know about when driving in the U.S. With some common sense and a little understanding, you will soon see why so many Americans love to "hit the road" every year.

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