A guide to driving in the USA

Driving abroad: USA

With long stretches of open road and ever-changing views, the USA is an unstoppable road trip destination.

Although with thousands of miles to drive, it may seem intimidating at first. Luckily, in reality this is not usually the case. US signs are easy to read and the roads are car friendly, yet learning the country's road rules can ensure you avoid running into any possible issues.

While some general driving rules (like which side of the road to drive on) are consistent throughout the US, majority of driving laws are determined at state level not federal. This means rules vary state to state, so if you're thinking of a cross-country road trip, you'll want to read up on the laws in more detail. Our driving guide to the USA is here to take you through some of the driving basics and need to knows to get you started.

Good to know:

Traffic lights

Throughout the US, traffic lights follow the sequence of red, green, amber and then back to red. This in unlike the UK where the lights will switch to amber before turning green as well. So if you see an amber light, it will always indicate that traffic is coming to a stop and you should slow down – never speed up to beat the light!

Right on a red

In the US, it is legal to turn right on a red light so long as there are no other vehicles approaching from the right and the way is clear. Essentially, you are required to treat the red light as a stop sign. The only exception to this if there is a sign that indicates it is not allowed and in New York City (only the city, not the state).

School buses

There are a strict set of rules on driving etiquette when near by a big yellow school bus in all states. If you approach a stopped school bus with flashing lights, you must stop and wait for the school bus to complete its loading or unloading of passenger. All traffic, including oncoming, may only continue driving once the bus has moved on. If you try to drive around a stopped school bus, you will incur a hefty fine.


Picking up hitchhikers while driving is prohibited in some states and can invalidate your insurance by doing so. Before stopping to offer a ride to a hitchhiker, check the state laws and whether your rental supplier allows it.

Driving in the US

High-occupancy vehicle lanes

On some highways, you may find a lane that is restricted to vehicles with a driver and one or more passengers. These are referred to as carpool lanes, diamond lands or HOV lanes and usually located in on the far left side of the freeway.

Designed in order to increase the average number of passengers per car, therefore reducing the number of solo travellers and cars on the road, the rules of the lanes vary slightly depending on road and state.

Highway signs will indicate certain rules such as hours of operation and the number of passengers need in a vehicle. If you're not driving alone and have a long journey ahead of you, its worth jumping into one of these lanes as they typically reduce travel time.

Four-way stops

These mega stops or cross-roads can cause a good deal of confusion among drivers, whether you're used to them or not. In the UK, such intersections where two roads intersect would usually direct traffic with a roundabout or traffic light. However, in the US this is often handled with an “all-way stop”.

Priority is given to the first vehicle that arrives at the intersection. If two or more vehicles arrive at the stop at the same time, the right-of-way is given to the vehicle on the right.

The diagram above shows you who has right of way if two cars approach the intersection at the same time.

Good to know

Frequently asked questions

Q. What is the law on mobile phones whilst driving in the USA?
A. Texting and driving in all states is illegal. In certain states using a mobile phone for navigation is also prohibited.

Q. What is the law on headphones whilst driving in the USA?
A. There are no restrictions in the majority of states on wearing headphones while driving. Although there are some, including New York state where it is illegal to drive a car while wearing more than one earphone.

Q. What is the law on drink driving in the USA?
A. The legal blood alcohol limit in the US depends on state. It typically falls between 0.05 to 0.08 per cent for drivers over 21, however, it is possible to be convicted for impaired driving with a lower blood alcohol level.

American speed limits

Speed limits differ across states and cities, so there isn't a consistent speed applied to all freeways or urban roads. There are exceptions to the limits as well, including lower limits at night and when driving within school zones. You will also find minimum speed limits on some roads. Usually, this applies to freeways, where the minimum is around 40-45mph.

Types of roadsSpeed limit
Major highways/freeways65-75mph
Rural roads 55-65mph
City roads 20-35mph
School zone 10-20mph

  • Travelling with children

    Children must be seated in a US approved car seat that is appropriate to their weight and height. Exact specifications vary depending on state. US rules do not recognise European safety standards, so your child seat from home may not be considered appropriate for travel if you are visiting from Europe.

  • Horns

    Should be used sparingly. In some cities it is against the law to use your horn unless it's an emergency.

  • Age requirements

    The minimum age to rent a car in majority of states is 21, although it is slightly younger in a couple states with certain car hire suppliers.

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