Driving in the US: The traffic laws and rules of the roads

Contributed by: Sukanya Dasgupta

Imagine this scenario...you have just arrived in US and have already taken the wheel. Imagine yourself driving home late at night and all of a sudden an oncoming vehicle flashes its high beams at you. Blinded, alert and awake, you check all your mirrors while slowing your car down. You are probably thinking what’s going on, until a few moments later you go by a cop car with all its lights off, waiting on the side of the road to warn a speeder, like an extremely patient guardian of the routes determined to save the precious lives, for they know the slightest error might lead to something that's irreversible!

Obviously, a lot of thoughts or questions might cross your mind, like how you could have avoided a ticket or what's the speed limit. While venturing into an unfamiliar and untried territory, you just need to stay on your toes. Owing to its immensity, United States has surprisingly diverse rules when it comes to the driving cultures, with each State having its own laws regarding the traffic. But knowing the common road rules would do you no harm.

Right, left and U-turns:

You might find this a little strange, particularly if you belong to a country driving on the left; in all states of US, traffic always drives on the right-hand side of the road. Always remember to buckle up and concentrate, use a hands-free kit for the mobile phones. Take utmost care while pulling out of junctions as well as one-way streets and also at roundabouts; keep in mind that you have to look first to the left while crossing the road. If you aren’t familiar with right-hand driving, you must be prepared for some disorientation.

If you wish to turn left at a junction, you should pass in front of a vehicle turning left and coming from the opposite direction, but not behind it. In many cities, green-arrow signals are there at major junctions for the left-hand turn lanes. Some lanes are signposted ‘RIGHT LANE MUST TURN RIGHT’ or it might say, ‘EXIT ONLY’ and they are particular about this. A right turn is usually allowed on a red light only if you give way to other cars and crossing pedestrians. But a right turn could be specifically prohibited, a panel indicates that noticeably.

U-turns on double-lane roads are usually taken on an asphalt area and built in the middle of two lanes at frequent intervals. But pay attention, drivers coming from both directions can use them, so try to slow down cautiously prior to entering the U-turn space and you must attach a priority to the incoming traffic.

Yield sign:

Yield signs are basically in red and white and have red letters. A yield sign alerts any driver regarding the imminent hazards or road conditions.

A yield sign requires the motorist to do the following: Slowing down, defer to intersecting or oncoming traffic, stop while necessary, proceed if safe, and stay aware of the oncoming vehicles. A flashing yellow light conveys the same sense as a yield sign. If a flashing yellow light is observed, the motorist should be alert both before and during passing through the intersection.

Speed limits and passing other vehicles:

Like a rule of thumb, keep it between 55 mph and 75 mph on most of the major roads, and on secondary networks it's 55-65 mph. While approaching an intersection or a city, you ought to reduce the speed. Yellow speed limit panels prepare a driver to slow down and are a smart way to avoid the tickets. The speed reduction is therefore gradual; 55 mph when you hit the city, then 45, and usually 35 mph downtown.

Slow moving vehicles remain on the right and the left lane is kept for overtaking. Well, that's what the theory says but in practice, any road is a good choice where overtaking is allowed. On roads having double, 3 or more lanes, the right lane is usually used by trucks and cars that enter and leave the highway, the center is for normal traffic, and the left lane is for overtaking or deemed as a carpool lane.

School crossings and school buses:

Pay extra attention to the school zones! The proximity of a school requires any vehicle speed to be considerably reduced since students enter and leave the school. Schedules are pointed out by flashing orange lights. Speed in these areas is limited to 15-20 mph. You will swiftly notice that everybody observes the school speed limit meticulously; it is not infrequent for a local sheriff to monitor the vehicles during school hours.

School buses are equipped with flashing yellow lights for warning the motorists that the bus is going to stop, followed by flashing red lights when the bus actually stops. Motorists must stop until all children exit and the bus moves off or the driver signals the vehicles to proceed. Never attempt to pass a school bus with the flashing red lights! The law relating to the school buses is taken quite seriously and convicted motorists may be fined up to $1,000, imprisoned or obliged to do a community service.

Disabled parking:

Some parking spaces are reserved for individuals with disabilities, generally marked with an image consisting of a stylized image of an individual using a wheelchair.

This space generally encompasses a larger area and the non-disabled motorists are prohibited to park on this space. Disabled parking permits are usually in the form of either especially marked license plates or a placard hanging from the rear-view mirror. One is subject to receiving a ticket for violation, if the vehicle does not display or have an official handicap license plate or mirror placard. Fraudulent use of another individual's permit is subject to heavy fines.

Be wary of hitch-hikers and cyclists:

Give the cyclists a wide berth. If someone knocks them off their bikes, they may have a difficult time convincing the cops that it wasn’t their fault. Picking up hitchhikers is risky and is prohibited in some states and people might nullify their insurance by doing so.


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