Tips for Driving in the USA

This is the second post in our series of “Top Ten Questions” on Road Trips according to the Trip Advisor travel forums, and we will provide Tips for Driving in the USA, obviously intended for non-American drivers.

Your feedback, comments and suggestions are welcome!

Tips for Driving in the USA

1. Get your Bearings

Looking at a real map
A real Map

Our first tip is to carry a GPS and a paper map. Your Waze App is also very handy. It can get tricky finding the right exit in cities like Los Angeles during rush hour or leaving the airport and heading out of town without a GPS.

Don’t forget a “real” paper map

A paper map is fun!, it lets you plan ahead your itinerary for the next day and spot attractions or places that you would like to visit. I usually highlight the route with a fluorescent felt-tip pen.

2. Carry the correct documents with you

To rent a car in the US, you need the following documents:

  • Passport or your ID
  • A valid driver’s licence

And, to drive one you need its Proof of Insurance. The car rental company will provide the insurance with the car rental papers when you pick it up.

view of Route 66 in Arizona
Historic Route 66 in Arizona

Driving License

The driving license is always a “dark” point, as it is unclear to many if an International Driving Permit is necessary (IDP).

An IDP is basically a translation of your driving license details into nine different languages and is accepted -but only when accompanied by your own original driving license- as proof of its validity.

Regarding IDP, the the US government tells us ( www.usa.gov website) that Foreign Nationals Driving in the United States: “must have a valid driver’s license. Some states require an International Driving Permit (IDP) from foreign nationals, in addition to a valid license from your own country.” It also suggests checking with the Motor Vehicle Department (MVD) of the state that you will be visiting to see if you do or don’t need an IDP.

For instance New Jersey’s MVD says that the IDP “is useful in emergencies such as traffic violations or auto accidents, particularly when a foreign language is involved“, and advises foreign visitors to carry one.

You don’t need an IDP in New York state either:, their MDV tells us that “if you have a driver license from another country you do not need an International Driving Permit“.

And, on Route 66, New Mexico does not require an IDP but recognizes it is helpful if you do have one.

Nevertheless, when you rent a car, the rental company may require both license and IDP. Avis, for instance does not require an IDP, as mentioned in their website’s FAQ:

The driver’s license must be valid at the time of rental, and remain valid throughout the rental period…. Driver’s licenses accepted in the U.S. are:

  • Any license issued by any U.S. state, territory or possession.
  • A license issued by a Canadian province.
  • A license issued by a country that participated in the 1949 Geneva convention on Road Traffic or the 1943 Convention on the Regulation of Inter-American Automobile Traffic.
  • A license issued by a country that has a reciprocal agreement with the U.S.

Bear in mind that you must get your IDP in your country before you travel. However, in general, tourists may drive in the US for up to a year with a foreign driving licence, of course, the issuing country must be party to the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic (most countries are).

Also, if your foreign licence is written in a language other than English, it’s a good idea to obtain an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) as a precautionary measure.

3. America’s Highways

Highways in the US are well maintained and have clear signposts marking the way.
Some highways are toll roads -there are also toll bridges- and you can spot them on the paper map beforehand so you can have your payment ready. For instance a one-way trip for a two-axle car on the Turner Turnpike from Tulsa to Oklahoma City costs $4.50 for cash customers.

Route 66 in its original alignments can be a regular single lane highway (as it is from Victorville to Goffs in California or from Oatman to Kingman and from there to Ash Fork in Arizona) or a four lane divided highway as in Hooker Missouri.

Interstate Highways

Number system: odd numbers run north to south, with I-5 on the Pacific Coast and I-95 on the Atlantic Coast. The even numbers run east to west (I-94 along the Canadian border and I-8 along the Mexican one). A third digit is added near cities: a “2” passes through a city, a “4” goes around a city, a “6” goes around a Metro Region and an “8” goes through a Metropolitan region.
Odd numbered hundreds digit: A “1” and a “5” are spurs into a city and a “3” is a link between two highways.
Route 66 runs close to several Interstate highways on its Chicago to Los Angeles alignment (I-55, I-44, I-40 and I-15 just to mention some of them).

Gas and rest areas: Rest areas are located along the freeway, and they have restrooms but no gas or food. You can picnic there.
At the exits you will find gasoline, food and lodging. Pay attention to the signs which let you know the brands located at the exit (i.e. Wendy’s, Amoco, Shell, Jack-in-the-box, etc.)

General Rules:
Only stop or park on the shoulder of an Interstate Highway in an emergency. When entering, yield to those on the Interstate.
Trucks are big rigs with trailers and they go fast. You can overtake on the left or the right.

4. Driving laws

Each state has its own driving laws. So you will encounter eight different sets of traffic rules and regulations when you drive down Route 66. But don’t panic, fortunately they are mostly the same, but with some variations.
Check the special driving rules of the state where you rent your car. When entering a new state there are usually highway signs giving specifics. If you are curious, you can
check  AAA Driving Laws or drivinglaws.org for a state by state detail.

Some General Driving Rules:

  1. School Buses
    Children who are getting on or off school or church buses have priority over all traffic. Keep your eyes well opened for those yellow “school buses”. If their lights flash yellow it means that it is going to stop. When the lights flash red, it has stopped.
    All traffic must stop 20 to 25 feet (7 to 8 m) away from the bus behind it if it is in front of you, or ahead of it, if it is on the opposite side of the road.
    Children may cross the road. Be careful. You must remain stopped until the bus moves on or the driver indicates that you may proceed.
    Never ever pass a school bus with flashing red lights, this is a serious offense you may go to jail and be fined up to $1,000.
  2. Speed Limits
    Speeds in general (for highways) range from 55 to 75 mph. See detailed information at this link: Governors Highway Safety Association (State Speed Limits).
    In urban areas speeds are lower than in rural ones, be aware of the speed limits within the towns, especially close to schools (25 – 35 mph). Signs will indicate the maximum (and on some highways, the minimum) speeds. One should always drive at a reasonable and prudent speed based on road and weather conditions.
    Everybody drives within +/- 5 mph of the maximum speed, even the trucks.
    There are no “fast” or “slow” lanes and you are not required to use the left lane for overtaking only.
  3. General Rules
    Always give cyclists a wide berth (min. 3 ft. – 1 m). Pedestrians have the right of way once they have stepped onto the crossing without traffic lights. When entering or leaving a car park yield to pedestrians.
    A solid yellow line on your side of the road means that passing is prohibited. Two solid yellow lines prohibit passing in both directions.
    Do not drink and drive
    If you come to a sign stating:”Right Lane Must Turn Right” or “Exit Only“, obey and do as told. Stop and Yield mean that: stop and yield.
    Flashing traffic lights, which you may encounter at night: red flashing means “Stop” and proceed with caution, yellow means “Yield” or slow down.
    In town, the rule about turning right on a red light is quite sensible, just treat it like a give way sign.
    In most states a red traffic (stop) light will allow you to take a right turn unless there is signs that prohibit it.
    Don’t use mobile phone or text while driving. Don’t speed. Buckle up and seat children in the back seats. Use your horn sparingly.
    Change one lane at a time and signal your intention to do so with time -even though you may see drivers who dont’.
    You can turn left by using the specially designated “Central Lanes”, marked off with yellow lines. Below  you can see them in Kingman, Arizona, with the Route 66 shield painted on it:

    Central Lane Kingman AZ
    Central Lane on Route 66 in Kingman Arizona

    Four-way stops: Stop. The first to stop is the first to proceed. If you arrive at the same time as another driver, the one on the right has the right of way.
    At road work zones, follow the speed limits and flagger signals -fines are heavy.
    Yield to emergency vehicles.
    Remember that school buses and vehicles carrying flammable liquids MUST stop at railroad crossings.
    If there are more than two lanes, traffic will overtake you on both sides.
    Police or service vehicles on the shoulder, do as the other drivers: slow down and move over one lane. Don’t stop.

Summing it up…

Driving in the US is a pleasant experience, people are not aggressive, they tend to mind their own business and drive safely I have clocked up over 20,000 miles on US highways and only had two “incidents” worth mentioning:

  • In Fresno, California, we were jammed on a single lane highway due to an accident that had happened half a mile ahead. While we waited for the highway patrol to clear the mess, a convertible with some young Hispanics drove past us along the shoulder at full speed, and seeing the cops ahead cut me off, shoving their car into the space between mine and the car ahead.
  •  In Santa Fe, New Mexico, another young buck suddenly switched lanes suddenly without signalling his maneuver (It felt like I was in Latin America again!) cutting me off.

We hope that these tips come in handy. And for those who drive on the left side of the road, read our next post, a bonus post “Driving On The “Wrong” Side Of The Road“. Your comments and suggestions are welcome.

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