TripWheels guide to driving in the USA

Renting a car in the USA is almost essential, you simply cannot just walk to a shop. It’s not that difficult to drive on the right in a left hand drive car. Our driving guide explains some of the differences between the UK and driving in the USA.

Full Driving Licence

First of all you will need your full driving licence. If you still have an original, one piece UK licence, this is fine – you will just need to show your passport as a photo ID as well. International renters must present a valid license from their country of residence. Please check here for more detailed licence information.

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Picking up your car

Next, take a moment to look around the car. Do not just jump in the car and be in a rush to take it out on the road. Take a little time to familiarise yourself with the controls, the lights and the air con before you start. You do not want to be doing this driving at 70 mph on the Interstate if you get too hot or cold.

Have you ever driven an automatic car? If not you have to try really hard to keep that left foot off the pedal. Hitting the brake of an automatic with your left “clutch” foot brings the car to an abrupt stop and is not only uncomfortable for passengers but also very dangerous for anyone in a car behind you. For extra help to try and stop this for the first few miles try bending your leg back so that your foot is almost touching your seat.

Finally, look for the parking brake. US cars often have a parking brake that is operated by your foot (your left foot) down by the pedals.

Once you have familiarised yourself then the next step is to get out of the airport or parking lot. Be prepared, a little research can be crucial. The maps that the US car hire companies supply are normally not always that good. It is always better to come prepared for that first journey with your own map or printed directions if you are not using a Sat Nav. We will move on now to some basic rules that will not be familiar to you but you will need to know for your first journey.

USA Driving Guide

The biggest difference if you are from the UK (this is not relevant if you are from Europe) is that you will be driving on the right hand side of the road.  On quiet roads it is actually very easy to forget this so in the first few days you will need to keep your concentration levels high. Turning left on a large intersection is also very alien to us Brits, try to follow the arrows on the road, which is by far the easiest way. Getting going from a parking space is also a time when it is easy to slip up and set off on the wrong side of the road.

Drink driving rules are strictly enforced, don’t do it!!   Also be careful if you have a drink on the plane on the way over as you could still be over the limit when you pick up your car. In some states it is even illegal to have alcohol inside the cabin of the car, to be safe when purchasing put it in the boot (known as the trunk in the US).

Road Signs

The road names you see hanging from cables above the road are the names of the road you are crossing, not the road you are on! This often catches out drivers new to driving in the USA.

Speed limits are strictly enforced, our advice is to not break them, they are in MPH and very easy to see so there is no excuse.

Alabama, Florida and Georgia all have ‘Move-over’ laws that require drivers to give wide berth to police or emergency* vehicles on the roadside, by either vacating the lane adjacent to the vehicles or slowing to 20 mph below the posted speed limit when approaching the scene. *Tow trucks also count as emergency vehicles when the lights are flashing and a vehicle is being assisted. This law has now been widened to include service vehicles performing services on the side of the road.

Traffic Lights/Signals

Traffic signals/lights in the USA are normally very visible and hung directly above the road you are on, obey them as Red Light enforcement cameras are becoming common and we are having more and more people coming home having $160 fines waiting for them. In the USA there is an expectation, that if no pedestrians are present, you will turn right on a red light. If it is not actually allowed at a particular intersection there will be a sign saying ‘no right turn on red’.

If you do turn right on red, the coast must be clear of pedestrians and cars coming either from your left or doing a U-Turn from your right and you must first come to a complete stop (this is very important and strictly enforced).

Roundabouts are fairly rare in the USA compared to what we are used to in Europe, so on minor roads you will find 4 way crossroads (sometimes with 2 lanes going into it from each road like one of our Dual Carriageways) the rule here is to obey the sign and STOP then proceed in order of arrival at the crossroads regardless of whereabouts on the crossroads they arrived.

Children, Child restraints and Child seats

Child restraint laws require children to travel in approved child restraint devices, and some allow or need older children to use safety belts. The age at which safety belts can be used instead of child restraints changes depending upon the state.  Normally younger children  are covered by child restraint laws, and safety belt laws cover older children and adults.

Our article about Child Car Seat Laws in the United States provides more information.