Driving in the big ol’ US of A can be quite a change for Aussie travellers. Beyond the very obvious differences of positioning, there are some cultural quirks and road rules which will keep you on your toes.
Here are just a few handy hints on how to get around when you set off on a rental car adventure in the vastness of the United States. Don’t forget to do additional reading specific to the states you will be driving through, as things can change across state lines - of course, this is the case in Aussie too!
Basic road rules
Most important: Drive on the right hand side of the road! Of course, this means you will likely be sitting on the left hand side of the car, so take an hour or two on quieter roads to figure it all out before heading onto busy highways.
Speed limits: These vary in different parts of the country, so keep a close eye on the posted signs. Generally you can expect top limits on highways of 75 or 80 miles per hour in the midwest, 70 on the coasts, and 65 in Alaska and much of New England. Residential speed limits average around 30, but can go as low as 15 - and there are a variety of different limits in between high and low.
Give way rules: These are not too different from the Australian rules. Add four-way stops (all controlled by “Give Way,” operate on a first come, first goes basis) and take away hook turns, as Melbourne is the only place on earth to use them. Unless specifically prohibited by a sign, you may turn right at a traffic light on a red light when it is clear.
Lanes: Yellow lines separate traffic in opposing directions, white lines mark lanes of traffic travelling in the same direction. Passing is done on the left, and using the oncoming lane to pass can only be done where there is a dashed yellow centerline on your side of the road. Except in Vermont, where passing is permitted even on double solid yellow lines.
Seat belt laws: These are left to the individual states to decide, however there is one federal standard - all seating positions in cars must be fitted with three-point seatbelt systems. Whatever the laws of the state, it is a good idea to wear your seatbelt and make sure all children are wearing theirs.
Licensing: Foreign nationals (in our case, Aussies) driving in the USA must have a valid driver’s license from their home country. Some states will require an International Driver’s Permit in addition to this, so check out the rules for where you’re planning to go.
It’s hard to offer any meaningful information about the condition of roads in a place as vast and varied as the USA. If you are driving long distances, the majority of your journey is likely to be on big highways. These are long and mostly featureless but there are frequent exits with signage to indicate where you can find hotels and motels, eateries and gas stations.
In the northern parts of the country, winter can cause difficulties on the roads - a little different to most parts of Australia where errant kangaroos are the biggest concern. If you are not confident with winter driving, we suggest that you avoid northern road trips in the colder months of December, January and February. If you do head into the winter wonderland, it’s a good idea to have chains on hand (rental companies can often provide them) and to check frequently that all systems are in working order and not frozen: ignition, belts, hoses, fluids etc. Carry a survival pack with (minimum) food, water, blankets, torches, and some cat litter for traction. Bring a cellphone that will work in the USA and keep it charged.
Some remote parts of the country will of course have low-quality roads, and you may contend with some gravel depending on where you go. However this is generally old hat to an Aussie driver!
Driving is quite the culture in most parts of the US, because people tend to do a lot of it! With Australia being such a big place, Aussies are no strangers to long drives, but Americans tend to leave us in the dust in that regard.
Drivers in the US have a bit of a reputation - for being aggressive, for being distracted and for breaking the speed limits and rules with abandon. This seems to stem from a bit of arrogance behind the wheel, and with such a strong driving culture, there is some derision and irritation for pedestrians and cyclists. Of course this is a generalization, and there are plenty of conscientious drivers in all 50 states. However, keep it in mind to watch out for any road rage or pushiness on the roads, and do not engage! It’s much safer to concede to any belligerent drivers and stay out of the drama.
These are just a few of the things to keep in mind for a safe road trip in the USA. Find your car rental with our simple search engine and be on your way for a fantastic holiday!