Driving on the other side of the road

One of the most daunting things about driving in the US is driving on the opposite side of the road if you come from places like Australia or the UK.

I was particularly worried about it when I first came to the US. One of my friends told me something that really helped when turning at an intersection: “lefty loosie, tighty righty.” When you turn left you should be turning into the far lane!  This is particularly difficult to remember when you’re turning out of a one way street!

It also messes with your head if you come to a roundabout. Thankfully there aren’t as many of these in the US.

4 Way Stops

Instead of roundabouts they have 4 way stop signs which are probably the most ridiculous part of driving in the US! I feel like they are designed as a social experiment. It is so awkward. First you have to realize that it’s a 4 way stop by seeing stop signs facing the other direction. Then the idea is that whoever gets there first gets to go first. There is this moment of awkwardness where each person edges forward, neither is sure who got there first. They really should just replace them with roundabouts!

The other thing that you’ll find challenging is it the whole car is on the other side of you, so you’ll typically drive over the line when you first start. I jumped a curb or two on my first day.

The good news is that the lanes are usually wider in the US which makes things a bit easier. There are usually more lanes as well – that keeps the traffic moving but can also be daunting at first, especially if you are from a small country town. It’s not only the freeways that have multiple lanes, but also many of the main roads in town. If you are driving in Texas, you’ll notice most freeways have service roads that run next to the main Freeway. It’s a bit like a freeway beside a freeway. It takes a little getting used to at first, but it does keep the traffic moving. 

Navigation

Navigating in another country can be tough, but more so when that country uses miles instead of kilometres, and the exits come off both sides of the freeway. You definitely want to make sure you have something to help you navigate. I got myself a Tom Tom when I first got to the US as I didn’t have phone data to begin with and I didn’t want to be trying to look down at my phone either.

Driving on freeways in the USA
Photo by Jarred Murray.

Even with navigation, freeways in larger cities can be confusing – with their bridges on top of bridges on top of bridges. I have taken the wrong ramp on more than one occasion so give yourself more time and take it slowly.

The speed limit seems like more of a suggestion

If you’re from Australia, you know you have to stick to the speed limit. There’s not much leeway if you go over it. In the US however, driving the limit will see you get overtaken a whole bunch. It seems like the accepted freeway speed limit is 10 miles above the signed limit. It’s a good thing too, because the speed signs are much smaller and harder to see than the ones back in Australia.

Turning Right On Red

The greatest road rule in the US is that you can turn right on a red light at most intersections. Instead of having to wait for a green light to turn right, you treat the red light like a stop sign. Once you stop and confirm there’s nothing coming your way then your can take a right turn.

People Drive Like Crazy

At least in Florida people drive like crazy. Especially close to Orlando and even worse closer to Miami.

If you ever played Mario Kart, it’s like everybody thinks that they have the golden invincibility star and for some they think they are the red shell. Expect speeding, don’t expect indicators, do expect people to cut you off, but don’t expect the drivers have any idea about even a notion of, “safe driving distance.”

Generally, I’ve found most people don’t use their indicator when changing lanes. Even if they do, for US made vehicles, their indicator’s are red, not orange. This makes them hard to distinguish from the brake light.

Insurance 

Because people do drive crazy in America, Insurance can get very expensive. If you’re a foreigner it’s important to make sure you have adequate coverage on your rental vehicle. Most rental places will include this at a price or you may be able to get it as part of your travel insurance.

If you’re from the US the good news is that the insurance you have on your vehicle is usually transferable to a rental vehicle.

If you’re a foreigner moving to the US, the downside is that your insurance is going to be very expensive when your first arrive as you won’t have a credit score, and they won’t consider your driving experience from another country.

Friendly Law Enforcement

This one may vary on personal experience. I have found the Police over here to be pretty friendly – although I have never had any issues in Australia either. I was pulled over twice in the US and never received a ticket. The Police also attended a couple of accidents involving our vehicle and have always been professional and helpful.

International License

I’ve never had to show an international license in the US, so you can probably just get away with using your Australian license. That said I have gone to the effort to get an international license at the RACV, just in case.

Going for a Florida License

If you do move to the US, depending on the state, they typically will only allow you to drive on an international license for one month after you enter the country. So you’ll need to go for a local driving test to get a local license. In Florida the driving test is ridiculously easy compared to Australia. I basically just had to drive around the parking lot. Florida driving license is especially valuable as it gets you a Florida resident rate to Disney!

Directions

To help with all the added confusion when I first arrived in the US I always made sure I had a navigation system. I bought a tom-tom on Amazon and it was a great investment. The freeways can be tricky to navigate here as they can be exits from both sides and bridges up on bridges up on bridges so trying to understand which exit you’re meant to be on can be tough.

Refuelling 

Fuel in the US (outside of California) can be much less expensive than other countries. So that will make your traveling a bit cheaper. Most US gas stations are also set up for you just to pay at the gas pump so you don’t have to go inside. However, unless you have a credit or debit card with a US zip code you’ll likely still have to go inside and pay at the counter before you can start pumping.

Weather

The US can experience some pretty severe whether conditions – so keep these in mind if you are traveling throughout the country. In Florida you can be driving beneath blue skies one moment then through torrential rain the next. Up North during Winter, there are ice and snow on the roads so drive slow and don’t put hazard lights, just put on your normal lights.

Drive Thru Everything

I got such a chuckle when I first arrived in the US and saw all the drive thru banks. They also have drive thru pharmacies. You can get drive thru coffee at Starbucks or drive thru smoothies at Smoothie King on top of all the other fast food drive thru options. Americans love to drive thru. 

Drive Thru
Photo by Terry Jaskiw.

The only downside as a foreigner is they never understand what you are saying through the speaker. My wife still gets a chuckle when I order an iced drink at Starbucks and it comes out hot.

Chic-Fil-A has perfected the drive thru experience though – at peak times they have real people to speak to you and they move vehicles through in two lanes. All these drive thru’s do make it very convenient. Just remember to get out and walk every now and then, otherwise you’ll be heading home from the US much heavier than when you first arrived. Trust me on this one.

Do you have any more tips for driving in the US?