If you are a first-time visitor to the United States and are planning to rent a car during your visit, there are several road rules you should be aware of. Be advised that penalties for disobedience can be severe.
- Familiarize yourself with the controls on the rental car. If you are from Europe you may find that many of the controls are on or around the steering wheel and not on the dash.
- Stop in BOTH directions for any school bus with flashing lights. This rule is strictly enforced in every state and the penalties can be severe, not to mention the risk of injuring a child.
- Don't drink alcoholic beverages (or do drugs) and drive. Make sure someone in your party is the “designated driver” who will not drink. Courts in the U.S. are levying more and more severe penalties for drunk drivers. Also, do not have (or keep) any open bottles of alcohol, even beer, in the car. If you are pulled over by a police officer or state trooper, any open bottles will get you a ticket, and you may even be asked to get out of the car and take a breathalyzer test.
- Pass only on the left.
- At a stop sign, drivers proceed in the order in which they have arrived at the intersection. If there is a tie, the vehicle on your right has right-of-way; or the driver traveling straight if someone is turning in a head-on approach.
- As indicated, a lower speed limit is generally in effect in front of schools when there are warning lights flashing on a sign. This rule is strictly enforced in every state. Drive slowly (25 mph) in neighborhoods.
- Regarding highway driving, the legal speed limit is posted on signs and typically ranges from 55-75 miles per hour.
- Cars already in a rotary (or traffic circle as it is known in different parts of the country) have the right of way.
- Stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk. Crosswalks are implied at four-way intersections.
- It is acceptable to make a right turn on a red signal after stopping (unless there is a specific restriction posted at the intersection). Be sure the path is clear of pedestrians and oncoming traffic.
- In urban areas, be careful not to block intersections (with or without traffic lights) when traffic backs up. This is called “blocking the box” and will get you a ticket if there is a police officer around.
- Be wary of angry, erratic drivers. If someone is tailgating, let them pass. Don't do anything to provoke “road rage.”
- Always have your driver's license and proof of auto insurance on you.
- Most gas stations require you to pay before filling the tank, even if no sign is displayed.
- Map out your journey. Route numbers and final destination signs are different from signs in Europe.
- If you get lost, park in a shopping area or rest stop and ask for directions.
- Don't “flash” your headlights to “yield” to another driver like you may at home as this is not recognized in the U.S.
Driving laws vary depending on the municipality you are visiting. Review the traffic laws of each for your personal safety as well as that of other drivers.