Driving in the United States

Route 66 in Missouri
Above: Historic Route 66 in Missouri.

In general, it is really easy for an European visitor - let alone a Canadian one - to move around and drive in the United States. Most signs are identical, starting with right-hand driving, while the network, wide and well maintained, makes driving very comfortable. Still, a few key differences must be recalled (see below).

Road sign, Grand Canyon AZ
Above: Some road signs are quite exotic, as here, in the vicinity of Grand Canyon National Park, near Flagstaff, Arizona.

Remember that, in the United States, each state enacts its own laws, particularly with regard to traffic (regulation of speed, drunk driving, mobile phone, etc.). The American judicial system is strict. In addition, victims file civil lawsuits almost systematically and compensations figures can be downright insane. Many lawyers specialize in civil litigation of speeders and pick up their customers through huge billboards planted here and there along the highways, promising to waive their fees on favorable court rulings.

Never ride without insurance and adhere to the rules. Here, the slightest contact can wreck a life...

Parking meters, Joliet IL
Above: Joliet, Illinois. In front of the Route 66 Museum. In small towns, parking space is never an issue. Parking spaces generally surround the main streets and shopping areas. In most cases, parking meters only take quarters (25-cent coins). It is essential to keep sufficient change at hand as, quite often, small coins are the only way to pay automatic tolls, get a drink or a snack from a vending machine, or start your washing machine at a laundry, etc..

Crossroads: first come, first served

At intersections without traffic lights, vehicles generally must yield under a simple rule: first come, first served.

Vehicles must heed STOP signs on the ground and on panels. We should not slow down-and-go but make it a full stop. If several vehicles wait at the same time, put your brain on overdrive and remember the order of arrival of each one not to step on anybody's toes. You can also get by with a smile and a nod...

The first come, first served rule also applies instinctively when traffic lights fail.

Turning right at traffic lights

A right turn is generally allowed on a red light provided you give way to other vehicles and crossing pedestrians. Exception: the "right turn" is specifically prohibited. In such case, a panel clearly indicates "no right turn on red".

U-turns on double-lane roads

In most locations throughout the United States, major roads are divided in double -or triple, quadruple, etc.- one way lanes. To reach the shops located on the other side of the road, along which traffic flows in the opposite direction, you should make a U-turn.

U-turns take place on an asphalt area marked to that end and built in the middle of two lanes at regular intervals. Attention, drivers use them coming from both directions so slow down sharply before entering the U-turn space. Moreover, as the pre-selection is made on the passing lane to the left, your first U-turn may be quite stressful at first.

Once stopped in the middle of the lanes, we must give priority to incoming traffic - on 4 or 5 lane roads, this can take a while - before re-entering the traffic flow on the other side, once again on the left, passing lane. A delicate maneuver to carry out with extreme caution.

U-turns are prohibited if a "No U-turn" sign so indicates - arrow in a crossed semicircle.

Speed ​​limits

Speed limits vary across states -and counties or towns at times. As a rule of thumb, consider between 55 mph (90 km/h) and 75 mph (120 km/h) on most major roads and between 55 (88 km/h) and 65 mph (100 km/h) on secondary networks - including most segments of Route 66.

Speed limit sign, Bourbon MO
Above: Bourbon, Missouri. As we approach residential areas, the speed limit is gradually reduced, usually down to 35 mph downtown. It is shown on white rectangular signs displaying the speed limit in black figures with the Speed limit wording above.

When approaching a city or an intersection, you must reduce your speed. Yellow speed limit panels prepare you to slow down in a few miles. The speed reduction is thus gradual: 55 mph as you hit the city, then 45, and generally 35 mph downtown (about 55 km / h). Pay particular attention to school zones (see below).

Passing other vehicles

On roads equipped with double lanes, slow moving vehicles stay on the right and the left lane is reserved for overtaking. Well, at least that's what theory says. In practice, any road where overtaking is allowed is a good option. Distrust therefore any complaints.

On roads equipped with 3 or more lanes, the right lane is generally used by trucks and vehicles entering and leaving the highway, the center for regular traffic, and the left lane for overtaking.

Around major cities, the leftmost lane can also be considered the carpool lane - vehicles carrying two or more people (see below) - in heavy traffic conditions.

Carpool lanes

The largest cities in the United States offer carpool lanes on their ring or peripheral highways.

Carpool lanes in Los Angeles CA
Above: Carpool in Greater Los Angeles, California. Indicated by black signs with a white diamond, carpool lanes avoid - at times - the permanent traffic jams of smog-covered LA. Reserved for vehicles carrying two or more persons, the carpool takes up the leftmost lane and does not allow lane changes on short marked segments. It is thus necessary to correctly anticipate the exits not to get stuck on the carpool lane, protected by a double-line prohibiting lane changes.

During peak hours - usually in the morning and in the evening as businesses open and close - carpool lanes are exclusively reserved for cars carrying two or more passengers. Sometimes three. Carpools usually take up the leftmost lane - just one as a rule. Signs also indicate the carpool time limits.

Although some locals use carpool lanes as regular passing lanes, I'd strongly advise against it - you're seriously risking a ticket.

School crossings

In residential areas (but sometimes also in the middle of nowhere), pay attention to school zones. They indicate the proximity of a school hence the speed is drastically reduced as students enter and leave the school. Schedules are indicated by flashing orange lights. If on, the vehicle cannot move past 25 mph (40 km/h) over a shorter distance - typically a few tens of meters. On occasions, speed in these specific areas is limited to 15 mph (25 km/h).

You will quickly notice that everyone scrupulously observes the school speed limit; it is not uncommon for the local sheriff to monitor motorists during school hours. Pay also special attention to frequently stopping school buses (below).

School bus

Orange-yellow American school buses pick up and transport school students and more generally, children, including during school outings.

School bus in the USA
Above: All school buses look exactly the same throughout the United States. Painted in bright orange-yellow colors, they fit flashing lights to indicate their frequent stops. As they do so, all surrounding traffic must do likewise. School buses are also used during school holidays or weekends to transport children to camp, scouts, etc. Their size may vary.

Once again (see above: school crossings), students are particularly protected by U.S. law and motorists should be extremely careful: as the school bus stops and lights start flashing, all vehicles in both directions (i.e. including incoming traffic ) must stop and wait until all students exit and the bus restarts.

It might happen that the sheriff is on watch, sometimes partly concealed, as overlooking this golden rule is regarded as a serious breach of the U.S. highway code.


If not protected by traffic lights, pedestrians have priority as they enter a crosswalk.

Drinking and driving

Blood-alcohol limits vary across states and are close to European limits. If in doubt, inquiry with locals, tourist offices, the sheriff or a bartender (!). Alternatively, refrain from drinking if you take the wheel; it is by far the best way to avoid unpleasant surprises!

In case of arrest or police control

If a police officer beckons you to stop, stop the vehicle as soon as possible on the side of the road.

You should NEVER get out of the car. Wait until the officer approaches the driver's side window while keeping your hands visible, necessarily placed on the steering wheel.

Make no sudden movements as it could be considered suspicious. Offer your license and registration information only upon the officer's request. Always remember to keep them at hand - in the glove compartment for example.

Emergency vehicles

In most states, it is mandatory to change lanes if an emergency vehicle is stopped on the emergency lane. At times, speed must be reduced as well.

Work zones

Speed ​​is always reduced in construction areas, even on weekends or holidays when highway workers are off.

Highway workers exercise a dangerous profession hence are drastically protected by strict laws which provide, for example in Illinois, 15 years in prison for an accidents involving highway workers. Speeding tickets in these work zones double or triple the regular ones.

Seat belt

It is compulsory for drivers, sometimes also for passengers riding in the back. On the other hand, your insurance may require all passengers to buckle up as well. In any case, always take this little precaution that saves lives.

Mobile phone

An increasing number of states prohibit talking on the phone without a hands-free kit.


It is often prohibited - and still quite unpopular - to do so but also to pick up hitchhikers. Particular attention is required nearby prisons, which are duly signaled on the roadside (several gigantic prisons are located in the vicinity of Route 66). Signals indicate the absolute prohibition of stopping and picking up passengers walking along the road. It sends a shiver down your spine (precisely the idea). Thus, we plan our route hoping not to end up with a flat tire...