Do you know America’s rules of the road?

Carlton Boyce / 17 January 2019 ( 22 May 2018 )

An Englishman (driving) in New York: Carlton Boyce delves into the intricacies of driving in the USA



Driving Stateside always reminds me of George Bernard Shaw’s observation that we are two nations divided by a common language; while the mechanics of driving in the two countries are broadly similar (even if they do drive on the wrong side*…) there are a whole host of customs and regulations - some formal, some less so - that the Englishman and woman need to get their heads around if they’re to enjoy their time driving in America.

Here are some of my favourites, but if I’ve missed any then please do let us know on web.editor@saga.co.uk!

*And no, I’m not being unnecessarily facetious. We drive on the left because that’s the side we had to ride our horses on if we were to have our sword-arm free to fend off ne’er-do-wells on our travels. 

Turning right on a red light

Being able to turn right on a red light (as long as it is safe to do so) is one of the few things that helps persuade me that ‘Murica is a civilised country rather than a nation of well-armed rednecks out to recreate the Boston Tea Party at the first opportunity.

How to turn right on a red light in America safely

You’ll need to treat the turn as a give way junction and give priority to traffic coming from your left, but otherwise all you need to do is:

• Come to a complete stop to check that it is safe

• Proceed with caution

• Enjoy being able to drive through a red light with impunity!

By the way, if turning on the red light is prohibited there will be a sign saying so; if there’s no sign then you should be good to go.

Except in New York City, where turning right on a red light is specifically banned.

I know; it’s hard being an Englishman in New York, isn’t it?

If you enjoy Carlton's inimitable style of writing, you'll love his book How to Become a Motoring Journalist - available on the Saga Bookshop.


Turning left on a red light

Some states go even further, and allow traffic to turn left on a red light, too. This only applies to traffic moving along a one-way street that is turning into another one-way street. A sign will tell you if this is the case.

Stop at the ‘Stop’ sign

On the other hand, you must stop at a ‘Stop’ sign even if you are miles from anywhere and there’s no-one around. They’re red-hot on this one and you can almost guarantee that there will be a police car hiding behind a bush nearby to catch you as you roll slowly over the line.

Stop when you see a school bus

The same goes for school buses, which will illuminate a ‘Stop’ sign and set their red lights flashing after pulling in to the kerb to drop the children off or pick them up. You must stop and cannot pass a stationary bus that is loading or unloading passengers, even if it is on the opposite side of the road as children are told to cross the road in front of the bus. Fines for ignoring this rule can be huge, and might even include prison time.

The only exception to this rule is if there is at least a five-foot unpaved area separating the two lanes, or a physical barrier. If there are either of these, then oncoming traffic may pass with caution - in some states.

Drive into the parking space

Not a law per se, but because a lot of American cars don’t have a number plate on the front you should always drive into a roadside parking space so the police can read your number plate as they drive past.

Yes, I know that it’s safer to reverse into a parking space but when in Rome, as they say…

10 tips to take the stress out of parking

Change lanes

You must pull out into the next lane if an emergency service vehicle has stopped on the hard shoulder or at the side of the road. If you can’t pull over into another lane then most states require you to slow down to at least 20mph slower than the posted speed limit.

Both measures are designed to give the emergency services extra space and an increased margin of safety in which to work.

Doing this is a common sense practise that you should adopt whoever has stopped for whatever reason (i.e. if a car has stopped to change a flat tyre, for example), in whatever country you happen to be driving through.

Four-way junctions

America is notorious for its four-way junctions, at which the unwary and naïve can sit for hours wondering who has the right of way.

The answer is simple, at least in theory: the first car to arrive at the junction has priority. The problem comes with subsequent vehicles, or those who think that their sheer size gives them the right to bully their way out.

In the case of the former you turn in the order you arrived at the junction, while the latter depends on how brave you are and whether you opted for the collision damage waiver or not on your hire car.

Oh, and Americans cross in front of oncoming cars, not behind them like we do here in the United Kingdom. If you're turning right in the UK and a car coming from the opposite direction wants to turn right too, you cross behind each other so that you can see the traffic that's coming towards you from the opposite direction, but in America they cross in front of each other. I’m sure it makes sense to them, even if it doesn’t to me.

Police stops

As Brits, we pride ourselves on our politeness, a state of mind that might lead you to get out of your car and approach the police officer after they’ve pulled you over. After all, if you can save him a walk, why wouldn’t you?

The trouble is, the Yanks can be a trigger-happy lot and the police officer might draw the not unreasonable conclusion that you are going to pull a gun on him. If he/she does, then the outcome will not be a happy one for any of the parties involved.

So, if you are pulled over by the police you should turn your engine off, place the keys on top of the dashboard where they can be easily seen, and then keep both hands in view on the steering wheel.

You should tell you passengers to keep their hands in clear view too; if it were me, I’d ask my front seat passenger to put their hands on the dashboard and the rear-seat passengers to put them on the head rest of the seat in front of them.

An over-reaction? Possibly, but not half as much of an over-reaction as getting shot because you scared the cop.

Five things to do if you are pulled over by the police in the UK

Undertaking

Overtaking on either side on multi-carriage roads is routine. Pulling over to the right-hand lane as soon as it is safe to do so will help quell your anxiety at being undertaken by a heavily loaded semi that gives you flashbacks to the film Duel…

The lingo

As Shaw so astutely observed, we don’t really speak the same language as our American cousins, and nowhere is this more apparent than when we are talking about cars.

For example, a car bonnet is a hood. And the boot is the trunk. They drive on the pavement and walk on the sidewalk. They cross the central median rather than the central reservation, and they fill their cars with gas rather than petrol. No-one drives a stick shift and they yield, where we would give way.

Not that you need to worry about remembering any of these; your cute English accent (no matter that you might be Welsh, Scottish, or Irish) will make you instantly adorable and thus forgiven.

Jay-walking

Yes, it’s a thing and it’s frowned upon. While we plucky Brits don’t hesitate to duck-and-dive our way across a road wherever we jolly well want to, Americans (and the Scandinavians and Germans…) will only cross at a proper pedestrian crossing.

It might be the nanny state in action, but they have more police officers than we do and they are all armed, so jay-walk at your peril.

Pay first

Gas stations (sorry, I couldn’t resist…) may well insist on you paying for your fuel before you fill up. By way of compensation, the same nanny state that won’t let you cross the road unaided also allows you to click your petrol pump on and then wander off, relying on the automatic shut-off valve to stop fuel gushing all over the forecourt.

(And yes, I’d swap a jay-walking law in this country if we could have those fuel pumps, too.)

10 things you (probably) didn't know about petrol stations

Turn signals

The indicators, or turn signals as the Yanks have unimaginatively christened them, on the rear of a lot of American cars are red rather than orange. This can cause some confusion initially but you’ll soon become familiar with the concept, usually after your passenger has started stamping the floor while shouting “What the hell do you think you’re doing?!”

Mobile phones

While some states do allow you to use a mobile phone when you’re driving, common sense says that it’s a silly thing to do, even if it is legal.

The International Driving Permit (IDP)

Some, but not all, states require you to have an International Driving Permit (IDP). You can check here to find out if the state you are visiting does require you to carry one.

It would be wise to check neighbouring states too, just in case you fancy exploring more further afield when you get there. (I went to Virginia once, and spent most of my time trying to find somewhere else to be.)

Or you could just get one anyway; they only cost £5.50 and can be obtained from most major post office branches. You can find your nearest IDP-issuing post office online. Just select ‘International Driving Permit’ from the drop-down box and then enter your postcode or nearest town.

Don’t forget that you’ll need to take your existing UK driving licence along with you, as well as a signed passport photograph and some proof of identification such as a passport. 


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The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.