Driving in the USA
The United States of America is the birthplace of consumer car culture, and driving is often the best way to savor the sights of this vast country. The country's great network of roads provide optimum access to the colorful natural wonders that are in between and sometimes far from the multicultural population centers. Most of the sights you typically see on a USA postcard are either best or only accessible by car. Driving long distances in the USA, popularly called a road trip, is a quintessentially American form of travel.
While Karl Benz may have invented the first automobile in Germany, car ownership only became an affordable option for the general public in 1908, when Henry Ford implemented the production line and was able to begin mass producing his signature Model T. Thus, America's love affair with the automobile was born. American consumer car culture truly took off in the 1950's, in a global market dominated by American car manufacturers such as Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. Public transportation networks in many American cities declined or were dismantled as the popularity of private car ownership exploded. In fact, many streetcar companies were bought by GM and later replaced by GM buses before being discontinued altogether.
Today, the vast majority of adult Americans own cars, and driving is usually the most popular way of getting around the country, as well as in or between cities. Compared to European and East Asian cities of similar population sizes, public transportation in American cities tends to be unreliable and infrequent, so renting or bringing your own car is usually a very good idea. This is true even of many of the very large cities, including Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami and Detroit.
Driving conditions vary between the different regions, states, and areas within states. If you are more into scenery, the West Coast, Rocky Mountains and Southwest offer a better experience, at the cost of speed because of hilly terrain, and of course, breathtaking views that entice you to stop. If you are more inclined to culture than virgin forests and snow-capped peaks, you may want to travel in states with greater population density on the three coasts (East, West and Gulf) and the Great Lakes states. Major roads are generally well paved and thoroughly maintained. However, there are areas, especially outside the Interstates, where cellphone coverage is spotty or nonexistent and it will take you many miles to find gasoline and refreshments. It is highly advisable to plan ahead if you are traveling long distances in remote areas by checking the weather, and have a GPS ready to find the route and the nearest resting area, but keep in mind that GPS systems do not work if there is no signal. If you are traveling through areas with no signal for dozens of miles, such as on the Central Coast of California, paper maps or printouts of routes and directions are highly advisable. Do your best to make sure you have enough power on a cellphone to call the emergency number, 9-1-1 in case of emergency, where signal reception may be unavailable. Satellite phones are not common but may be necessary if you often roam off-the-beaten-path destinations.
With the exception of military and scientific usage, the United States does not use the metric system, instead retaining its own customary units. This means that road distances are indicated in miles, and speed limits are indicated in miles per hour (mph). 1 mile is equal to 1.609 km. Canada and Mexico both use the metric system; automobile speedometers (but not odometers) normally display both units. Vehicles whose speedometers display only one set of units at a time have an electronic switch allowing the driver to toggle between US and metric units on demand; check the owner's manual to find out how to switch units.
Fuel (which Americans refer to as "gas" or "gasoline", not "petrol") is dispensed in US gallons. A US gallon (3.78 liters) is 0.84 Imperial gallons (quarts, pints and fluid ounces all also differ between US and Imperial measure). US fuel prices tend to be lower than those in Canada or Europe due to differing levels of taxation.
Also notable is the way Americans measure fuel efficiency. Unlike most of Europe it is not measured by how much gas a car needs to cover a given distance (e.g. liters per 100km) but rather how far you can drive on a gallon, thus miles per gallon (mpg). This makes comparisons of European and American fuel efficiency difficult, but keep in mind that a higher number is better (e.g. 50 miles per gallon is better than 10).
General driving laws
The American highway rainbow
While the states establish their own traffic laws, and are each responsible for the maintenance and signage along their roads, the federal government does provide certain standards for highway signage and markings. This means signage will be very consistent from state-to-state, with minor (sometimes regional) variations.
Most road signs are generally self-explanatory with the instructions explicitly specified. In particular, the color and design of highway signage is very well standardized. Here are the common sign colors you'll encounter along America's highways:
Americans drive on the right in left-hand drive vehicles and pass on the left, as in Canada and Mexico. White lines separate traffic moving in the same direction and yellow lines separate opposing traffic. Red lights and stop signs are always enforced at all hours in nearly all U.S. jurisdictions. At all intersections, vehicles must stop behind the thick, white line painted across the road and cannot block crosswalks. Turning right at a red light (after coming to a complete stop and yielding to cross traffic) is legal in every state, though exceptions exist (such as throughout New York City and where signage or signals explicitly prohibit it).
Road rules differ slightly from state to state, though they are for the most part uniform. With the exception of the U.S. Virgin Islands, traffic moves on the right and cars rented or sold in the US are almost invariably left-hand drive.
Making a call or a text message while driving is very dangerous and violators face a hefty fine if caught. The use of horns is also regulated: They may be used only in case of giving warning to other drivers.
Drunk driving is strictly forbidden and subject to fine, arrest and/or suspension of one's driver's license, and if you are convicted of felony drunk driving, you are likely to also be banned from reentry to the United States if you are not a citizen or permanent resident. The general limit that qualifies for drunk driving is if the blood alcohol content is .08, which means 8 grams of alcohol per 10 liters of blood, but even an amount lower than that can still get you in trouble if you are driving erratically and the police consider you impaired. Police do random breath tests in most states and a test is always conducted in the event of an accident. When you are pulled over for erratic driving, especially at night, police will almost always assume that you are drunk driving unless you explicitly deny the claim by citing other factors and/or pass the breath test. Depending on how much you drink, it is recommended to wait until about 3 hours after drinking alcohol before driving; leave your vehicle, ask others to drive you or take a taxi if time is short.
Licensing laws vary from state to state. However, most visitors aged 18 or over are allowed to drive on their foreign license when visiting on short trips if it is written in English. Licenses not written in English generally have to be accompanied by an International Driving Permit (IDP) or a certified translation before you are allowed to drive.
For longer stays (above a year), you may be required to convert your foreign license to a local one in the state you are residing in. The actual requirements vary from state to state, but most foreign license holders would be required to sit for theory and practical tests before their licenses can be converted. The list of countries whose license holders are exempt from testing requirements varies from state to state.
Speed limits are usually about 30-35 mph on most city roads, although New York City recently decreased the speed limit on most roads to 25. Speed limits on limited-access highways usually range from 45-75 mph. Many interstate highways mandate a minimum speed of 40 mph.
Speed limits on the interstate highways can vary from state to state, and also according to geography (for example, slower on mountain passes and within cities than on long straight rural sections). Posted speed limits can range from as low as 45 miles per hour (70 km/h) in densely urban areas to as much as 85 miles per hour (135 km/h) in rural stretches of Texas, but mostly they'll be between 65 and 75 mph (105–120 km/h). The speed limits (in miles per hour) are always clearly posted on interstates.
Most American drivers tend to drive calmly and safely in the sprawling residential suburban neighborhoods where the majority of Americans live. However, freeways around the central areas of big cities often become crowded with a significant proportion of "hurried" drivers, who exceed speed limits, make unsafe lane changes, or follow other cars at unsafe close distances (known as "tailgating"). Enforcement of posted speed limits is somewhat unpredictable and varies widely from state to state. Not exceeding the pace of other drivers will usually avoid a troublesome citation. Beware of small towns along otherwise high-speed rural roads (and medium-speed suburban roads); the reduced speed limits found while going through such towns are strictly enforced.
American drivers often drive 5 to 10 miles per hour (8–16 km/h) over the posted speed limit; driving slower than the speed limit can actually be dangerous. A good rule of thumb is to avoid driving much faster than 5 mph (8 km/h) over the speed limit, and be sure that some other cars are always passing you; avoid being the fastest or the slowest vehicle. It is customary for the slowest traffic to keep to the right while faster traffic passes on the left. If you are pulled over by police for speeding, the excuse "Everyone else is speeding too" will not help. Highway Patrol officers are usually most concerned with the fastest drivers, so ensuring you are slower than the fastest speeders is one way to avoid their attention. If you are pulled over, be respectful, address the officer as "Officer," and express heartfelt regret at your excessive speed. You will nearly always get a ticket, but it never hurts to express regret as maybe you will get lucky and only receive a warning.
Roads in the US are generally well maintained. The US is criss-crossed by a large network of highways known as interstates, meaning that traveling between nearby cities is usually a breeze. As most Americans drive to get around their respective cities, most major cities are also covered by a dense network of elevated highways.
As with major cities around the world, congestion can be expected during the morning and evening peak hours in American cities. Nevertheless, due to the unreliability of public transport in most American cities with some notable exceptions on the East Coast and Great Lakes states, driving is still the most convenient way of getting around.
- Interstate Highways are fast and long distance routes that connect major cities, which usually have between 2 to 5 lanes in each direction. The speed limit usually varies between 60mph in cities to 85mph in parts of Texas, and there can be lane restrictions such as for High Occupancy Vehicles (vehicles with two or more occupants) symbolized by a white diamond (◊). While there are no commercial rest areas directly adjacent to the Interstate, there are usually road signs that tells restaurant, lodging, and refuel options at a nearby exit, or you can get to truck stop, an establishment that caters to long-haul truckers but is open to all travelers; Truck stops provide several services all in one building, with a "greasy-spoon"-style restaurant, gas station, general store, and even hot showers. Interstates symbols are a red and blue shield with the word Interstate over the red and the highway number over the blue.
- A secondary system of federal highways is the U.S. Highway system. Some U.S. Highways are limited access for more or less long stretches, but they are often surface roads, sometimes with just one lane in each direction. U.S. Highways, which generally predate the Interstate system, tend to be older routes that lead through town centers. In many cases, Interstates were constructed roughly parallel to U.S. Highways to expedite traffic that wishes to bypass the cities and towns. If you don't mind stopping at traffic lights and dealing with pedestrians, U.S. Highways can lead you to some interesting off-the-beaten-path sights. U.S. Highway symbols are a white shield and a black number.
- Each state is responsible for maintenance of the Interstates and U.S. Highways (despite the names), but each one also maintains its own system of State Highways (or State Routes) that form the bulk of the inter-community road network. State Highways are usually surface roads but may occasionally be highways; you can generally count on them being well maintained (and plowed in the winter), and following one will get you to some form of civilization sooner rather than later.
- Many states also have county routes, which are constructed and maintained by county governments. These are almost always tertiary or at least secondary roads, they can be winding, and they often go through lovely rural scenery and small towns.
The vast majority of Interstates do not charge tolls, but several eastern states operate cross-state Interstate toll roads called Turnpikes (or the Thruway in New York). Other states have also started to implement tolls to defray their maintenance costs. While the majority of these tolls can still be paid in cash (no credit cards or traveler's checks), states are increasingly turning to electronic tolling. Ask your rental car agency or auto club about the tolling options available to you.
Most major American cities have a dense network of freeways that lead from the suburbs into the city center. These freeways are usually linked to, or even part of the interstate highway system. Outside of peak hours, driving from the outskirts of the city to the city center is usually a breeze and relatively quick. However, many of these freeways get clogged with traffic during peak hours, and it is not unheard of to be stuck in traffic for 2 hours or more. If you are planning to travel during those periods, give yourself ample time to complete the journey.
Renting a car companies are found in every major American city, and even in many of the small towns. The big international chains such as Hertz, Avis, Enterprise, and Budget all offer car rental services in the US. Other local chains that are not so well known internationally include Alamo, Dollar, National, Thrifty, and Action, and these are usually cheaper than the big international chains. Usually, the best deals for car rentals can be found online. Rental prices tend to be higher during major holidays, so book early if you wish to travel during peak periods. Most rental cars in the US are automatic transmission, so unless you specifically ask, it is unlikely you will get a manual transmission car.
Rental agencies accept a valid driver's license from your country, which must be presented with an International Drivers Permit if your license needs to be translated. You may wish to join some kind of auto club before starting a large American road trip, and having a cell phone is a very good idea. Most rental agencies have some kind of emergency road service program, but they can have spotty coverage for remote regions. The largest club in the United States is AAA (+1-800-391-4AAA), known as "Triple A". A yearly membership runs about $60. AAA members also get discounts at many hotels, motels, restaurants and attractions; which may make it worth getting a membership even if you don't drive. Alternatively, Better World Club (+1-866-238-1137) offers similar rates and benefits as AAA with often timelier service and is a more eco-friendly choice (1% of revenue is donated to environmental cleanup programs). Some non-U.S. automobile clubs such as the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA), UK's Automobile Association, and Germany's ADAC have affiliate relationships with AAA that allow their members to use AAA services.
Most Americans renting cars are covered for loss or damage to the rental car either by their credit card or their own private vehicle insurance policy. Without appropriate loss/damage waiver cover, you could be liable for the entire cost of the car should it be written off in an accident. Purchasing loss/damage waiver cover and supplemental liability insurance may add up to $30/day to the price of a rental, in some cases doubling the price of the rental. If you visit the car rental website and identify your country of origin, you may be given a quote which includes the loss/damage waiver and liability insurance for considerably less. Many travel insurance policies include cover for some rental car damage – check your policy against the rental terms and conditions.
Gasoline ("gas") is sold by the gallon, at stations that are primarily self-service (you must pump your own gas) with the exception of those in New Jersey and Oregon, where self-service is illegal. The American gallon is smaller than the UK gallon, and equals 3.785 liters. The U.S. octane scale is different from that used in Europe; a regular gallon of U.S. gasoline is rated at 87 octane, the equivalent of about 92 in Europe. In most states, gas stations offer a choice of three levels of octane: 87 (regular), 89 (midgrade or plus), and 91 (premium). Unless you are renting a luxury vehicle, your vehicle will likely require only 87 regular. If you are driving in the Rocky Mountains area, you may encounter stations that offer gas at lower octane ratings, most commonly 85 octane. This is suitable for use by 87-octane vehicles at high elevations, but if you're heading for lower elevations, be sure to fill up with 87 octane.
Diesel is not as common, but still widely used and available at most stations, especially those catering to truckers. Untaxed "offroad diesel", sold in rural areas for agricultural use, is dyed red and should not be used in cars, as there are heavy fines if you're caught.
Despite increasing petroleum prices worldwide (a trend which dramatically reversed in the second half of 2014) and some increases in gas taxes, the American consumer-voter's attachment to his automobile, combined with abundant domestic oil reserves and relatively low taxes on gasoline, has kept retail fuel prices much lower than in many parts of the world. Prices fluctuate by region and season. As of late March 2016, current prices are averaging slightly under $2.05/gallon (equivalent to $0.54/liter) for regular and slightly over $2.10/gallon for diesel ($0.56/liter). However, gas prices vary dramatically from state to state, primarily based on the respective state sales tax rates (which are invariably included in the advertised price). The highest prices are usually found in Hawaii, Alaska, the West Coast (especially California), Illinois, and New York (especially New York City). The lowest are generally found in the south central U.S. A good rule of thumb to find cheaper gas is to venture away from the highway and city centers. Various mobile apps and websites (such as Gasbuddy) display cheapest current fuel prices within each local area.
Some rental cars (as well as cars sold to the public) are so-called "flex-fuel" vehicles, meaning that they can operate on any mixture of gasoline and ethanol ranging from pure gasoline (E0) to 85% ethanol/15% gasoline, commonly known as E85 (although under U.S. regulations, fuel with ethanol content between 51% and 85% can be legally sold as "E85"). Although only about 3% of the fuel stations in the U.S. sell E85, it is increasingly available throughout the country, especially in the midwestern states. Depending on the location, E85 may be significantly cheaper than regular gasoline (which is most often E10). However, this cost advantage is frequently more than offset by reduced fuel efficiency when operating on E85. Many flex-fuel vehicles see a 20–25% reduction in efficiency when running on E85 as opposed to regular. However, this may vary according to how a vehicle's engine is tuned from the factory, as well as the exact composition of "E85" sold. (Winter blends of E85 are most commonly 70% ethanol instead of 85%.)
In many cities, curbs are painted to reflect the ability to park at a particular location. The colors used and the meaning of the colors used varies from city to city. In general, red (and sometimes yellow) means "no parking" and blue designates handicapped parking only (with appropriate license plate or placard). In California, yellow curbs designate loading only (goods/cargo), white designates passenger pickup or dropoff, and green indicates there is a time limit for parking (look at signs for time limit). Elsewhere, the meaning of curb colors varies. Always follow parking signs and, if you are uncertain whether parking is allowed at a particular spot, it's best to park elsewhere than receive a parking ticket or even have your vehicle towed and impounded (which will result in a large fee to retrieve). A parked vehicle should never block a crosswalk, fire hydrant, or the entrance to a driveway/alley.
Parking garages or parking ramps (UK: car parks) are found in every major American city, though prices can be somewhat expensive in the larger cities, with prices going as high as over $50 a day in New York City. Street parking is available in most of the small towns, but in some larger cities may be reserved for residents of those areas only. Fines for illegal parking are stiff, and in some cases your vehicle might even be towed away.
Driving in the United States helps you to traverse the wonders the United States has to offer, from nature, to culture and history. Sites such as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Mount Rushmore are at best reached and enjoyed by car; taking an airplane will still require more than an hour's drive to get there! For visiting multiple sights, look at the itineraries below for an idea of what a specific stretch of the United States' roads is famous for:
- A Taste of Coastal Texas
- Craft Brewery Tour of Southwest Wisconsin
- Braddock Expedition
- El Camino Real
- Natchez Trace Parkway
- The North Cascade Loop
- Oregon Trail
- Pacific Coast Highway
- Route 66 and Radiator Springs
- Six Days in Historical New England
- The Jazz Track
- U.S. Highway 1
Is this not your way of getting around? See United States without a car.