Driving a car in the USA is not that different from driving in Europe. From my own experience, I find driving in America much better than driving here. The roads are generally good, the signage is clear, and every gas station sells several types of coffee. The only annoying thing is the traffic jams. What is the speed limit in the USA? When can you run red lights, and which roads are toll roads?
Basic Road Rules in the USA
In the USA, you drive on the right.
Driving a passenger car in the USA requires a minimum age of 18 and a Group B license. Police officers and car rental companies usually accept a European license, especially if it has the EU logo in the corner. You may rarely encounter a requirement to show an international driving license at a car rental shop.
Car rental in the USA for people under 25 is available in most states with only a $15.00–$25 surcharge per day of rental. The surcharge is related to the higher risk of damage.
All persons in the car must wear seat belts when driving. There is a toll for using some motorways and roads. It is more common on the east coast, while on the west coast, it is usually required to pay to cross certain bridges or tunnels.
Differences in Driving a Car in the USA and Other Countries
📏 Imperial Units are Used
In the USA, distances on signs are displayed in miles, and speed is measured in miles per hour (mph). 1 mile is 1.609 km, and 100 yards is 91.44 m.
Fuel is sold at gas stations in gallons. 1 gallon is 3.785 liters. Car fuel economy in the USA is given as the number of miles driven per US gallon of fuel (miles per gallon, abbreviated mpg). To convert to l/100 km, simply divide the number 235 by the mpg.
🚗 Automatic Transmission Cars Predominate
Nearly all vehicles sold and rented in the USA have automatic transmissions. This leaves you with only the brake and accelerator pedals in the car, which is more convenient. Read the article how to drive an automatic.
🔦 Daytime Running Lights are Optional
In the USA, in most states, it is not necessary to have a light on during the day unless visibility is reduced or it is dark.
🚦 Traffic Lights Stop After the Intersection
At first glance, the clear difference is in the traffic lights; in the USA, they are located after the intersection. You get used to it quickly. After a red light, the light turns green. But green is followed by yellow and then red.
❌ Intersections with No Right of Way
At some intersections, you will see “4 Way” or “All Way” signs. They do not give right-of-way, but cars leave in the order in which they arrived at the intersection.
🚥 You Can Turn Right on Red
You can turn right at traffic lights when the light is red. You must always give way to a vehicle approaching from the left. This rule does not apply in New York City, where the Right Turn Permitted on Red sign only allows red lights. Right turns, on the other hand, are prohibited by No Turn on Red and Right Turn Signal signs, where you must follow the traffic light with a right arrow.
⛽ Gas is Prepaid
In most states, it is customary to pay for your gas first and then fill up. Some petrol stations are unmanned, or a credit card is inserted into the dispenser. For instructions, see how to fill up in the USA.
➡️ Overtaking from the Right is Allowed
Right overtaking is allowed on motorways and multi-lane roads. Americans often don’t signal when changing lanes, so be attentive. The “Slow Traffic Keep Right” sign instructs slower vehicles to keep right.
2️⃣ “Carpool Lane” for Cars with 2 or More Passengers
In Los Angeles and other major cities, you may see lanes marked with a diamond and possibly a “Pool Only” sign. These are for vehicles with two passengers only, so they don’t have to stand in endless queues.
Driving in a lane marked Carpool Lane is free. When traveling alone, violations are subject to a fine of $100 to $150. It is also illegal to cross the yellow line that borders the carpool lane. You may leave or enter it before any intersection where the line is broken.
🚌 Overtaking a School Bus Carries a Costly Fine
Overtaking a stationary and flashing school bus is strictly prohibited. The amount of the fine varies from state to state, usually ranging between $300 and $500. In some states, you can go to jail.
U.S. Highways: Signage, Tolls, and Other Fees
A number of different designations are used for roadways in the USA.
- Causeway: A major thoroughfare combining conventional roads with a system of bridges. They are encountered in waterlogged areas, the most famous being the MacArthur Causeway in Miami.
- Expressway: High-speed roads similar to freeways. In contrast, expressways may have a limited number of grade-separated intersections.
- Freeway: A highway with overpasses and underpasses, no intersections, and no pedestrian or bicycle access. Tolls may or may not be collected. Freeways are faster and are designed to accommodate more cars than highways.
- Highway: A general term for a highway or major road within a state. It may have one or more lanes in one direction and may charge a toll for passage. There may be intersections on a highway. Highways running north-south have an odd number, while highways connecting east and west have an even number.
- Interstate: A system of interstate highways (highways) that often stretch across the United States. Interstate Highways are referred to as I-10, I-75, etc.
- Parkway: A highway similar to Scenic Drive, usually forming the access road to national and state parks. Truck access is usually restricted. Parkways are usually set in a nice setting, with an emphasis on architecture.
- Scenic Route: Scenic roads in state and national parks. They are often very narrow, and larger vehicles are not allowed on them and may be impassable in winter. There are usually several stops along Scenic Drives with interesting views.
- Thruway/Throughway: Toll-free off-ramp, only trucks can pay tolls.
- Turnpike: A designation for toll highways in the USA.
The road number is often accompanied by its direction – north (N), east (E), south (S), and west (W). A zipper system is used for connecting lanes, with cars alternating left and right. Americans are used to following the system.
Tolls in the USA are collected on a few dozen highways, for crossing bridges and tunnels or using dedicated lanes. For example:
Maximum Speed Limit in the USA
The maximum speed limit varies by USA states.
Compared to Europe, it may seem relatively low, with only one highway in Texas having a speed limit of 85 mph (137 km/h). Highways in the eastern USA generally go up to 70 mph (113 km/h), while those in the west go up to 75 mph (121 km/h).
Speeding approximately 10 mph over the speed limit on the highway is generally tolerated, but for more serious offences, you can expect a summons to appear in court the next day. The average USA speeding ticket is $150.
On county roads, the maximum speed limit is typically between 55-70 mph, and 15-45 mph in residential zones. Speeding tickets often constitute a significant source of revenue for smaller towns, and speed cameras are common.
Traffic Signs in the USA
Traffic Sign Colors
Highways in the USA are very well marked, with road sign colors being intuitively sensible.
- Red is used for stop signs, right-of-way adjustments, and prohibition signs.
- Green is used for navigation signs, directional signs, or highway exit warnings.
- Blue indicates motorist services, gas stations, campgrounds, or restaurants.
- Yellow communicates warnings—of an intersection, traffic lights, or potentially speed bumps.
- White signs with black text are reserved for supplementary signs and explanations.
- Orange indicates detours and warnings related to road work.
- Bright yellow-green denotes pedestrian crossings, cycle paths, and school zones.
- Pink (coral red) portable signs warn of the scene of an accident, natural disaster, or perhaps a flood.
- Brown is used to navigate to places of tourist interest, landmarks, and campsites.
The shapes of road signs also follow a logical pattern.
- Rectangle is used for directional signs and signs indicating some sort of restriction.
- Octagon is found exclusively on red stop signs.
- Triangle with the tip pointing downwards is used for the “Yield Right of Way” sign.
- Square always indicates some kind of warning or a speed reduction order.
- Pentagon warns of a school zone or pedestrian crossing near a school.
- An elongated triangle resembling a barrier indicates a prohibition against overtaking.
- A circle with a black cross indicates a nearby railroad crossing. The circle with red color expresses prohibition.
Additional Panels for Traffic Signs
Traffic signs are often accompanied by additional panels, so some knowledge of English is beneficial while driving. Abbreviations are used for some instructions.
- ◊ CAR POOLS ONLY reserves a lane for vehicles with two or more occupants. In the USA, the driver often travels alone in the car, causing traffic congestion. If a driver without passengers uses the reserved lane, he or she faces a fine.
- 4 WAY or ALL WAY usually appears at STOP signs, with cars leaving the intersection in the order they approached it.
- BUMP or SPEED BUMP indicates a bump or speed bump.
- CAUTION warns of a hazard or risk.
- DETOUR indicates a detour.
- NO TURN ON RED prohibits turning right on red.
- ONE WAY indicates a one-way turn.
- PED XING or XING indicates a pedestrian crossing.
- WORK AREA informs about ongoing work on the road.
Parking in the USA
I recommend primarily using designated and secure parking lots where the car is supervised. Traffic signs and curb colors establish the rules for on-street parking.
- ⬜ White: Parking is permitted unless prohibited by a sign. This also applies to curb ramps without a line.
- 🟩 Green: Parking is allowed for a short time, which is usually indicated on a sign or directly on the curb.
- 🟨 Yellow: Standing is only allowed for the time necessary to let passengers off and on. The driver must normally remain in the car.
- 🟥 Red: No standing. Red may also indicate no stopping in combination with a corresponding sign.
- 🟦 Blue: Only disabled drivers with the appropriate sign displayed on their window may park.
What to Do if You Get Pulled Over by Police in the USA
When a police officer in the USA intends to pull you over for speeding or any other violation, they will typically follow behind your car and activate their flashing lights.
As a driver, you are required to pull over immediately and wait calmly with your hands loosely on the steering wheel until the officer approaches your vehicle. Displaying nervousness or rummaging through your glove box or purse can potentially escalate the situation.
The officer will pull up behind you, get out, and ask for your license and vehicle documents through your open window. The process may seem overly stern, but it is crucial to follow the instructions. As long as you have not broken the law, you have no reason to worry.