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A guide to driving in the US

A first-time guide to driving in the US

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19 July 2016 by Rui Ribeiro

One of the best things about a trip to the US is the opportunity to try that classic pastime—the great American road trip. There’s nothing quite like piling your bags into a car, and taking off down a wide stretch of open road, completely in control of your own schedule.

Our travellers agree, and over the years our self-drive holidays in the United States have become some of the most popular getaways our clients request. But for a traveller from the UK, there are some significant differences between driving at home and driving in the States, so you’ll want to ensure you know the basics before you set off.

You’ll need a driving permit and proof of insurance

Licenced UK drivers will need this document to permit them to drive in the US. Fortunately, it costs only £5.50—details are available on the Government’s website. You’ll also need to carry your British licence as well.

It is illegal to drive a car without car insurance in the United States—if you get into a scrape, It will protect everyone involved. All car hire companies will provide insurance, but you should always be able to provide proof of insurance upon request.

The rules can vary between states

Driving in the US, you won’t often notice when you’ve crossed a state boundary, except for the roadside signs. But it’s worth being aware, as the driving laws can change from state to state, and one can be easily pulled over for an accidental infraction.

For example, speed limits, including the default (non-posted) limit can change across state lines, and some states also have minimum speeds you must maintain.

Don’t turn left too hard

Of course, most countries drive on the right-hand side of the road, and frequent travellers from Britain are used to making the switch. The real challenge, however, is remembering that this also changes which vehicles have the right of way.

In the US, you’ll want to adjust your habits around left-hand turns in particular, giving everyone plenty of space and waiting patiently for a good opportunity to open up.

You can turn right on red

It’s legal to take a right turn on a red light, so long as you’ve come to a full stop, there is no oncoming traffic that would have to adjust to accommodate you and there is no sign stating otherwise. One notable exception to this rule is New York City, however, where this rule would add to congestion and confusion.

Stay off your mobile

While enforcement is a bit spotty at times, it is illegal to use your mobile phone while driving in most of the United States, unless you have a hands-free device.

Stop for school buses

No matter which side of the road you’re on, if a school bus has stopped to let children on or off, you must also stop to create a safe path for them to cross the road. Most buses will flash their lights or unfold a stop sign from the door, but it can still be easy to miss if you’re not observing both sides of the street carefully.

Put alcohol in the boot

In most parts of the US, it is illegal to carry an opened container of alcohol in the car, whether or not the driver is imbibing. But it’s often impossible to avoid carrying leftover wine, for example, so the safest thing to do is keep any open containers of alcohol in the boot, where they’re out of sight.

As with everything in America, you’ll encounter vast regional differences, from etiquette to posted signs. For the official list of driving rules in each state, consult the US Department of Motor Vehicles online.

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