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Driving in the USA

Official Travel Information

1. Make “Safety First” A Priority

Buckle your seat belt. You could be fined if you drive or ride without your seat belt fastened. Also secure young children in age-appropriate car seats or booster seats in the backseat.

You must turn on your lights at night, beginning just after sunset. This allows you to see more clearly and allows other drivers to see you as well. There are two lights settings on vehicles at night. Use the lower setting (or low beams) when driving on the road with other cars. The stronger setting, known as high beams, is only to be used when you are driving alone on a very dark road, such as through a park or a forest. It is a courtesy in the United States to switch from high beams to low beams should you encounter another car on the road. Also, be sure to always use your blinking turn signal when you’re switching lanes or making a turn.

If a nearby driver is doing something he or she shouldn’t be doing that is putting you in potential danger, use your horn by pressing down on the middle of the steering wheel. Use the horn very sparingly as it startles other drivers; in some cities, using your horn is against the law unless it’s an emergency.

Many states have banned the use of hand-held mobile phones while driving, especially if you are sending a text. Be sure to check the laws in your destination, but it is always safer to wait and use your phone once you have safely arrived at your destination.

If you hear or see an emergency vehicle — such as an ambulance or a fire engine — with its lights and/or siren on, you must stop and immediately pull over to the right. You are not required to stop for police cars; however, you should move over to let them pass. (If you happen to get pulled over by the police when driving, do not get out of the car. The police officer will let you know if he or she needs you to exit the vehicle.)

Whether you’re driving through an urban or a rural area, make sure to stay alert for pedestrians. If there are no traffic lights present, you must yield to pedestrians who are crossing at a pedestrian crossing. Also, be weary of hitchhikers: U.S. drivers generally do not pick up hitchhikers, and in some states, it is prohibited offer them a ride.

2. Stay On Your Side Of The Road

Drive on the right side of the road unless passing another vehicle. When passing on a two-lane road, you are allowed to move over to the left side just long enough to overtake the slower vehicle.

Lines down the center of the road indicate whether you are in a passing zone. Yellow lines denote the separation between traffic moving in opposite directions, while white lines show the division of lanes for traffic traveling in the same direction. Solid lines indicate that passing is not allowed, while dotted lines indicate that you can pass as traffic allows.

If you’re driving on a multilane road, stay to the right if you are moving more slowly or planning to turn soon, and use the left lanes to pass. Stay in the middle or left lane if you are driving on the road or highway for a longer stretch of time to make way for drivers who need to exit.

3. Follow The Speed Limit

It may be tempting to drive fast, especially on one of the USA’s beautiful stretches of open road, but please follow the speed limit. Speed limits are indicated in miles per hour (one mile is equal to 1.6 kilometres) and displayed on white signs. The speed limit on major highways is usually 65 miles per hour (roughly 100 kilometres per hour), though it can vary. The speed limit in town is usually around 30 miles per hour (around 50 kilometres per hour). When you are exiting a major highway onto smaller roads, look out for speed limit signs to tell you how to adjust your speeds and slow down to match traffic.

Note that you can also get in trouble for driving too slowly. If you are unsure of how fast you should be going, match your speed with that of other cars on the road.

4. Get to know the signs 

Highway signs look slightly different throughout the country, so it is important to pay attention. You can determine what direction highways are going by paying attention to the interstate's number: Odd-numbered highways usually head north to south, while even-numbered highways often run east to west.

Familiarise yourself with common road signs. Traffic signs are organised by shape and colour:

Red signs signify the need to stop or yield, or warn of a prohibition like an area you’re not allowed to enter.

Yellow signs convey warnings, such as a reduced speed limit up ahead or a pedestrian crossing area.

Orange signs are used to provide information in and about construction zones.

Green signs offer guidance, like distance to nearby towns.

Blue signs offer helpful information such as upcoming rest stops and cultural attractions.

Traffic signs are also grouped by shape. Rectangular signs are used for instructional purposes; octagons represent the need to stop; circles warn of railroad crossings; diamonds signify warnings; and upside down triangles indicate the need to yield.

5. Prepare For Traffic Lights

Traffic lights are used to guide drivers through intersections. The order in which the lights change in the USA is from green to yellow to red and then directly back to green. Green means go, yellow means go slowly and proceed with caution, and red means come to a complete stop.

Unless there is a sign indicating otherwise, you are allowed to turn right at a red light after coming to a complete stop. Many traffic lights have installed cameras to catch drivers who do not come to a complete stop when turning right on red. If you are caught on camera not coming to a full stop, you may face a fine, which will be passed along to you from the rental company, so be careful. When turning left, yield to oncoming traffic.

Intersections with four stop signs instead of a traffic light (known as “four-way stops,”) are also common in the USA. In this case, yield to those who arrived at the intersection before you. If you arrive at the same time, the car to the right has the right of way. If you’re unsure of what to do, wait for the other drivers to clearly indicate it’s your turn to go.

6. Plan For Tolls

Many major highways and bridges charge access tolls, which can range from less than a dollar to nearly $20. Before starting your drive, check to see if your route features tolls and how much you’ll need. Many global positioning systems (GPS) like Google Maps indicate tolls on the route. Many tollbooths take credit cards, though some require exact change; it is a good idea to travel with small change or dollar bills in case an unexpected toll arises. In some cases there are alternative routes available that bypass toll roads, so make sure to check your map.

If you’re planning an extensive road trip, ask your rental car agency if they have an electronic toll program, such as EZPass. The program provides devices that attach to your windshield and allow you to pass through tollbooths quickly, allowing you to avoid waiting in long lines and fumbling for payment. However, not all states offer electronic toll collection: EZPass is only offered in 15 states along the East Coast, while other electronic toll programs can be found in various states.

7. Be Vigilant When Parking

Street parking rules vary widely, so pay close attention to signs detailing time limits, rates and restrictions. Many urban areas feature parking garages that eliminate the stress of looking for street parking, but they can be expensive.

When parking on the street, look for parking meters or payment kiosks, which allow payment via credit card. There are also apps like Parkmobile that allow you to pay for parking using your smartphone. In smaller towns, expect to find old-fashioned coin meters, so be sure to carry change! Take notice of the timing on parking meters; evenings and Sundays are often free of charge.

When parking alongside a curb, face your car so that it points in the same direction as traffic (front first).

This article is brought to you by Alamo.