Driving in the USA: What You Need to Know

Drivers hands on steering wheel

Today’s guest post comes from Chris Stillwell, who writes for temporary car insurance comparison site Confused.com. Last year, Chris lived out his American driving dream in Florida behind the wheel of a Ford Mustang convertible.

Most of what the average person knows about driving in America usually comes as a result of watching Hollywood films and absorbing hours of US TV. Although films like ‘Bullitt’ feature classic car chases and more modern day interpretations like ‘Too Fast, Too Furious’ show high speed manoeuvres and chases through packed city streets, the reality of driving the country’s highways and interstates is usually a more sedate experience.

However, keep your wits about you if you’re planning on driving in Washington D.C as a 2012 report issued by US insurers Allstate highlights the country’s capital as having the worst motorists in the nation. On average residents of Washington D.C get into collisions once every 4.7 years (112% more likely than average US drivers who crash their car once every 10 years).

On the flip side the safest drivers can be found in the Sioux Falls, South Dakota where the average motorist has a bump once every 13.8 years (27.6 less than the national average).

If you are planning a trip to the US and fancy getting behind the wheel, there are a few things you should swot up on before you leave…

The Basics

It’s the most obvious of differences, but it still needs to be said, in America they drive on the right-hand side of the road. If you’ve ever spent time driving in mainland Europe, you’ll be right at home with the wheel on the right and the passenger side on the left.

The legal driving age varies from state to state with some allowing drivers as young as 14 years and three months behind the wheel, and others waiting till the age of 17. If you are intending on hiring a car, most hire companies have a minimum age of 21 though even if you are aged under 25 there will usually be an additional surcharge to pay. It’s always worth checking the rental company’s policies before booking anything.

No stick shift

Gear selector

Most American cars feature an automatic gearbox, this means there’s no shifting up and down through the gears for you; the automatic gear box takes care of that.

There’s no clutch to worry about so it’s almost impossible to stall an automatic, instead all you need to look after is shifting it from neutral or park (stops the vehicle from moving even when pressing the accelerator) to drive (engages the gearbox for forward movement) or reverse (as the name suggests).

There are often other features but the four listed are the most commonly used.

Fuelling up

Stack of billsWhen stopping for fuel or gas as it’s known in the US, you’ll be required to pay beforehand. Head for the cashier and give them your cash (say $30) then head back to the pump and fill up. If for example you only use $20 you can head back in to the cashier to get your change and a jumbo soda for the ride.

Road rules

The maximum speed limit in most states is 65mph although this can vary, so always pay attention to road signs. Where you see two signs displaying speed limits, the higher number will be the top speed and lower number the minimum speed you should travel at.

Traffic lights hang above the junctions on US roads. When you reach a red light and are turning right, you can continue and turn as long as the road is clear. This does differ from junction to junction but ‘No right turn on red’ signposts will display whether the manoeuvre is permitted or not.

When approaching stop signs located at four way junctions, you must stop. The rule of thumb is first come first served, whoever gets to the stop first, gets to go first though this doesn’t always work in practice.


Don’t park in front of curbs painted red or yellow as these are reserved for emergency vehicles.

Avoid parking within 10 feet of a fire hydrant on either side of your vehicle or you face being ticketed or towed.

While there are a few key differences from the road rules you might be used to at home, it’s really not that dissimilar. The cars may be bigger, roads wider and cities split in by blocks, but opting to drive in America is a great experience and a chance to act out all your Hollywood fantasies of cruising around in a convertible with the top down.

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