A few rules to get started on how to drive in the US

9 February 2016

After reading my article on the choice of the transportation mode, you may have opted for renting a van or a car (and I approve !). It is time now to get behind the wheel, here are some pieces of advice regarding the driving during your road trip on the US West coast.

Well, if you have your driver’s licence, we will consider that you can drive (although the reality can be quite different… but that is not the point of this article haha). The highway code is very similar to the French (or more generally Europe’s) one. The signs may have a different color but altogether you will not be lost by markings – especially as proficient English is not even mandatory to find your way. Otherwise, driving is relatively easy : you will probably have automatic shift, lanes are way bigger than in Europe and you can take endless straight roads that do not require a specific dexterity behind the wheel. I will simply and quickly present the points you have to be careful about, or rather those you have to get used to starting your trip !

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» Speed limits

No surprise, all the roads have a maximal allowed speed limit (no, we are unfortunately not on a German highway). But be careful, the metric system not being the same, the signs indicate the limits in miles per hour (mph) ! No stress, you do not really have to convert since your speedometer is in miles (you even have the km/h equivalence on the dashboard in most vehicles). Limitations vary from road and state to another. But to give you a rough idea, most highways are limited to 65 mph (around 100 km/h). In the cities it is varied, and national parks are limited to 30 mph (around 50 km/h). On the highway checks do not seem to be very frequent, and we are actually sometimes surprised to be the only ones driving at the speed limit. I think that you have to be more attentive to speeding in cities and their surroundings (especially as trafic is also more dense), as well as in national parks (because rangers are numerous and driving around the parks all day long). During long steps, cruise control will be your ally ; careful with being attentive to what is going on though !

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» Red lights

I think that what stroke me the most at the beginning (besides automatic shift that I had never used before) is red lights. First, you have to know that red lights are located on the opposite side of an intersection, and not at its entrance. When you arrive at the crossroads, be attentive to the light in front of you but on the other side of the pavement. If it is red, you then have to stop before the crosswalk, and not at the foot of the light (which would be in the middle of the crossing). You can used to that easily but it is still confusing at first. Another rule that differs from what we are used to : unless a sign specifically says otherwise (no right turn on red sign), you can turn right even if the light is red and if you are not disturbing trafic (if the intersection is empty basically). It is not mandatory but allowed if ever this situation comes up.

» Driving into an intersection

For those on which you do not have a red light, the method is a bit different from the traditional and typically French give way to the right. Whether the intersection has a stop or yield  or no sign, it is on a first come first serve basis when there are several cars. So, basically, it only means that you have to be careful to all cars coming into a crossroads. You will gradually learn not to hesitate and know when it is your turn !

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» Driving on the highway

On the highway, driving is very easy because lanes are wide and roads pretty straight, sometimes endlessly. As I was explaining it, Americans do not necessarily respect the speed limits, especially on lost highways (in Death Valley for example), that is why it is recommended to pull back in and drive on the right lane. Yes, because passing on the right is allowed ! In order not to be surprised by a car passing on your right side, just pull back in as soon as possible (and check your mirrors before doing it).

Otherwise, there are reserved lanes that do not exist in Europe (at least in Europe, I am actually not exactly an expert). In fact, as Americans are usually using their car alone,the government and different states introduced carpool lanes. What’s that ? It will be the left lane most of time, next to which you will find HOV lane (high-occupancy vehicle lane) or carpool lane signs and with white diamonds painted on the road. According to the given hours, those lanes will be reserved for cars with cars with at least 2 or 3 occupants. All in all it helps decongesting the roads for the people making the effort of sharing a car (you will surely be in that situation) during peak hours. Outside of the showed times, the lane wan be used by anyone. To know the exact specifications (number of people, hours), refer yourself to the signs which are very clear.

» Markings

As I was explaining it just before, the signs are not hard to understand and you will actually find most of the ones we have in Europe – and directions are also easy to find and follow. I will simply showcase two signs that are not numerous in Europe :

Animal presence : Well, yes, of course those signs exist in Europe but animals are just usually not the same ! Try to spot as many as you can, but most of all be careful to wildlife crossing the road. It is quite frequent : I actually almost hit a wild horse near Monument Valley, that was quite the scare for the 3 of us. In national parks, animals are walking around freely, it would not be uncommon to end up face to face with a bison or a bear (pictures coming soon… !). Signs announcing risks of tidal waves and hurricanes are also found regularly, you see that going on holidays on the US West coast is actually quite dangerous !

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Adopt a highway : Some roads will be punctuated by « Adopt a highway » signs with a firm’s logo or the mention of names. In fact, these sections (usually 1 or 2-mile long) can be « adopted » in exchange of a financial contribution that helps looking after the road and cleaning the surroundings. As a person, you can either volunteer to help keeping the road clean or mandate a company to do it (Adopt a Highway Maintenance Corporation). Why not have your own sign on these roads ?

» The police

Fortunately, we have not had any encounter with the police during our West coast road trip. I will not teach you anything (hopefully) if I am telling you that if a police car is urging you stop on the side all lights out… You definitely have to obey ! You must always have your (local or international) driver’s licence and a piece of ID, as well as the car’s documents (from the rental agency). The rule to follow is not to go out of the car before the police officer comes to you. Just lower the window, hands on the wheel, to discuss what this is about ; and follow the instructions. Well, I am telling you this with the hope that you will not need that piece of information ! Otherwise know that it is forbidden to have alcohol inside the car, even less open bottles/cans nor on the driver’s side. You are not allowed to drink in the vehicle (it goes without saying for the driver, but this is also for the passengers).If you are grocery shopping, put the alcohol in the trunk in case your car is checked.

» Parking

There are no specific rule regarding parking, except for parking outside delimited spots for parking tickets purposes. Otherwise, follow the instructions on the signs and parking meters ; every spot has its own rules regarding timing, prices… Parking in the city center can quickly become a nightmare because spots are expensive (both in financial and availability terms). I would strongly recommend to get info beforehand to plan everything. For example in San Francisco we parked outside the city center and then took the subway to go downtown and visit. Fast and effective, you will surely pay less as well. It is apparently forbidden France too (highway code courses were too old as it seems), you cannot park facing incoming trafic. It is then forbidden to park on the left side of the road without taking a U-turn somewhere… (We had quite the fine, nicely raised by the rental agency, in Canada, I am talking from experience haha)

Anyway, that’s it, we are coming to an end about this topic ! You know the essential things there are to learn. Have a nice trip 🙂

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