U.S. Road Rules
If you're traveling to the United States for the first time, there are certain customs that might take some adjustment. Some examples include the weather, the food, people's attitudes, and driving laws.
Chances are, the rules of the road in the U.S. will be slightly different than those that you're used to. The guide below will outline the different laws that are common across the country.
NOTE: Keep in mind that certain traffic laws can also differ from state to state. Before traveling, check up on the driving and safety laws for the state that you'll be in.
General Driving Rules in the U.S.
Below are a set of driving rules that apply to every state in the United States. Take your time while driving to allow yourself to adjust to the differences.
- Vehicles drive on the right side of the road.
- This might feel odd, especially at intersections and turn lanes if you're used to driving on the left side of the road.
- Steering wheels are on the left side of the car.
- When making a left hand turn, pass in front of cars making similar left hand turns across the intersection.
- Do not try to pass behind cars turning across from you.
- White lines are used to separate lanes of traffic moving in the same direction.
- Yellow lines are used to separate traffic headed in opposite directions.
- Do NOT cross into lanes separated by lines that are solid yellow.
- If the yellow line is broken, cross/pass with caution, but be highly aware of oncoming traffic.
- If you're behind a school bus with flashing red lights, you may NOT pass it until the lights have stopped flashing.
- Carpool/HOV lanes are typically located on the far left side of U.S. freeways.
- Pedestrians always have the legal right of way.
- If you see someone crossing the street, you must come to a full stop for them.
- Keep a careful eye out for motorcyclists and bicyclists.
- Double check all of your mirrors and blind spots before making lane changes.
- In some states, bicyclists are required to ride in the street; while some cities have designated bike lines, others do not. Be aware of your surroundings.
- Car horns should be used sparingly and only if you fear someone putting you in danger.
- If you use the horn excessively, people could get upset at you and try to retaliate.
For Your Safety
Some of these safety laws might seem obvious, but are important to follow because they could save your life.
- Always wear your seatbelt.
- If you have children, make sure that they're buckled in correctly before you begin to drive.
- Children under a certain age or weight may be required to sit in a child safety seat or booster seat. We've compiled lists of the safety law requirements in all states, so you can choose the ones you'll be driving in to see what the regulations are.
- Never drink and drive.
- It is illegal in all states to drive while legally intoxicated.
- Don't text and drive.
- In many states, texting and driving is illegal. Some prohibit the use of handheld devices for any reason, including for phone calls or navigation. Check out our guide to safety laws in your states of travel for details.
- After sunset and in bad weather, you must turn on your headlights.
- Always use your turn signals.
- Even if it seems like there's no one around you, always signal before you turn or make lane changes.
- On freeways and highways, slower traffic generally stays in the right-hand lanes, while faster drivers stick to the left-hand lanes.
- Hitchhiking is prohibited in most states, and can be very dangerous—do not attempt it, and do not pick anyone up.
If you're ever in an accident or feel that you're in immediate danger, dial 911 for medical and police services from anywhere in the United States.
U.S. Road Signs & Traffic Lights
When traveling to the U.S., you'll probably encounter a few road signs that you don't recognize, and there may also be some laws around traffic lights you're not familiar with.
Before getting on the road, review the list below to better understand the rules around United States road signs and stop lights.
- Traffic lights in the U.S. will generally have red, yellow, and green lights that indicate when you're supposed to stop and go through intersections:
- Green means go.
- Yellow means slow down and prepare to stop.
- Red means stop.
- Unless otherwise indicated, you are legally allowed to make right turns at red lights.
- Make sure that you check for oncoming traffic from all directions before turning.
- Stop signs (red and octagonal in shape) indicate that you must come to a complete stop at the limit line before continuing through an intersection.
- Yield signs (red or yellow and triangular in shape) indicate that oncoming traffic has the right of way, and you need to wait for the road to clear before progressing.
- You aren't required to come to a complete stop at yield signs, but you should slow down—and if traffic is approaching, you may need to stop anyway.
- Signs that indicate where trains cross into automotive traffic are generally marked by an “X" shape and read “Railroad Crossing" or “RR."
- These signs are usually accompanied by flashing lights and bells that will warn of an oncoming train.
- If you encounter a railroad crossing without lights or sounds, you should come to a complete stop and check the train tracks for any oncoming locomotives.
- Speed limits are posted on the sides of roads, and indicate (in miles per hour) the minimum and maximum speeds you're legally allowed to drive in that area.
- On the freeway, signs above lanes that read “Only" or “Exit Only" indicate that those lanes do not continue on the main freeway, and drivers will either need to merge or take the exit.
- If you're parking on the street, make sure that you read all of the signs around your spot, usually indicating how long you're allowed to keep your car there.
- Some areas may only allow people with permits to park on the street, or might prohibit street parking altogether—pay attention to everything written on the signs!
U.S. Traffic Tickets & Violations
If you're given a traffic ticket for violating driving laws, you'll most likely have to pay a fine in compensation. This can get complicated, since you might only be staying in the U.S. for a few days.
Should you incur a fine, try to pay it off as soon as possible. You can usually do this by mail or online, depending on the state's ticket policies.
While using a rental car, the company you rented from will most likely be charged and may pass the expenses on to you.
If you're caught driving under the influence, your punishment could be more severe. The consequences will vary, based on:
- Individual state laws around DUIs.
- If anyone was hurt or killed.
- Whether it's your first DUI offense.
- Your blood alcohol content at the time of offense.
- The recklessness of your driving.
The penalties for DUIs include:
- Large fines.
- Alcohol education/treatment programs.
- Driver's license suspension or revocation.
- Jail time.
For more information, choose your state(s) of travel within the following guides we've put together for your travel needs: