Top Tips for Driving in the United States

Updated June 25, 2022

If you've not driven in the US before then there are some basic differences that every driver should be aware of. Quite often you'll be driving on quiet roads but occasionally you might want to slip onto the Interstate or drive though one of the cities along the route. This selection of tips for driving in the United States is specifically tailored towards the Route 66 states, and is designed to keep you safe and operating within the law.

Speed Limits

When driving in the US it’s worth noting that each state does have their own driving laws, but before you start to think this is going to get complicated, it’s fair to say that they don’t differ greatly. Generally speaking the maximum speed limit across each of the Route 66 states is between 70 and 75mph (110 and 120 kph) except in situations where signs indicate a lower speed limit. The state-specific maximum speed limits are:

  • Illinois - 70mph
  • Missouri - 70mph
  • Kansas - 75mph
  • Oklahoma - 75mph
  • Texas - 75mph
  • New Mexico - 75mph
  • Arizona - 75mph
  • California - 70mph

Automatic Transmission

If you’ve not driven in the US before then you're going to find driving Route 66 a real treat! Aside from the fantastic scenery you will most likely be driving a rental car too, and in most cases that means automatic transmission. At first I was unsure of how I’d find driving an automatic but I very quickly came to love the ease and comfort. Stop. Go. Simple.

If you’ve not previously driven an automatic it’s best to tuck the left foot away and into a comfortable position in order to operate the brake/gas pedals with the right foot only. This will help avoid any sudden braking should you have the urge to go for the clutch! Don't forget that you'll also be driving on the right-hand side of the road, and this, combined with being sat in the left side of the vehicle, takes a little adjustment. You may find yourself reaching for the window each time you think you feel the need to change gear!

Auxiliary controls (indicators, wipers, etc…) will also be reversed but the pedals remain in the same position - brake on the left, accelerator on the right. There's no clutch in an automatic transmission – this space is taken up by the over-sized brake pedal.

Rules of the Road

Each of the following rules may be new to you depending on your home country. Be sure to familiarize yourself with these before hitting the road.

  • If you're not from the US then rule number one is make sure you drive on the right hand side of the road!
  • Also, for drivers from outside the US, STOP really does mean stop - it's a notification that the driver must come to a complete halt and make sure the intersection is clear before proceeding. You should always come to a complete stop at a STOP sign even if the road initally appears deserted. You may see some drivers regarding the rule as optional but my advice is to always drive within the law. Getting a ticket for failing to stop completely can really put a dampener on your road trip!
  • You cannot overtake a parked school bus if it's red lights are flashing. You must wait for the bus to pull away or for the light to stop flashing.
  • It is not illegal to undertake in the US so be sure to keep checking those mirrors. It also makes it even more important to ensure that you signal when changing lanes.
  • You'll encounter few roundabouts in the US so in situations where 4 roads meet you will most likely come across 4-way intersections. When you arrive at an intersection you must always stop. The first car to arrive will be the first to pass through followed by the next cars to arrive. Drivers take turns depending on the order that they arrived at the junction. In the event that two or more vehicles arrive at the intersection at the same time then each driver must yield (give way) to the right.

Traffic Lights

Traffic lights will often be on the far side of a junction or even strung high above the road, rather than fixed to posts by the roadside. You need to be mindful of this as for a new driver in the US it may not be immediately obvious which set of lights are intended for your position.

The sequence of lights is usually green-yellow-red-green, but very occasionally you may come across a set of lights that skips the yellow phase and immediately cuts from red to green and back. A yellow light does not mean that you may proceed, it is simply giving you an indication that the light is about to change - don't pull away on yellow.

If you're from outside the US then one of the most unusual features of traffic lights (in most states, and certainly all of the those on Route 66) is that it is legal to turn right at a red light. This can feel alien at first as driving through a red light goes against everything you may have learnt in your home country, however, you will very quickly adjust. Remember that you are already driving on the right-hand side of the road so all you are doing is simply checking to your left to ensure that the road you are pulling into is clear. Always look left to ensure the path is clear and don’t be bullied into turning if you feel uncomfortable. Be assured that in cases where it is considered dangerous to turn right there will always be signs stating “Do not turn right on red”.

When turning left at a traffic light remember that, as you are driving on the right, you need to make sure that you aim for the correct lane, particularly when turning in to a dual carriageway. Be sure to enter the correct lane upon turning (the right-hand lane) and not accidentally enter the left-hand lane!

Speaking the Lingo!

In the US you'll find that the vocabulary of driving may be different to your home country. Here are some of the more common words you'll encounter:

  • Turnpike - Toll Road
  • Freeway - Motorway
  • Hood - Bonnet
  • Trunk - Boot
  • Gasoline - Petrol
  • Fender - bumper
  • Yield - Give Way

You'll find that you will very quickly adjust to driving in the US. Route 66 is a long trip and so you'll learn out of necessity if nothing else. Following on from all these tips for driving in the United States, my biggest piece of advice for you to take away is to relax and study other drivers. If you arrive at a junction, or a set of traffic lights, and you're not sure what to do just observe the cars in front and take their lead. If you're really unsure then pull over if it's safe to do so and wait for the vehicle behind you to proceed. Never feel pressured to do something if you feel uncomfortable even if the car behind beeps their horn.

Remember, "Life is a Highway" and there is always something new to learn!

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