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Australians visiting the USA - driving

Updated on July 27, 2012

For an Australian, one of biggest concerns about an American holiday is driving. Yes, Australians drive on the right-hand side of the car and the left-hand side of the road (or as they like to believe, the 'correct' side of the car and the 'correct' side of the road!) But there's more to driving in the USA than making sure you don't veer the car into oncoming traffic!


Driving on the left-hand side of the car

Aussies grew up watching American TV and movies, so they all know that drivers sit on the left-hand side of car in the US (unless you're one of a odd few driving a British car from across the pond). So is it nerve-wracking? For this particular Aussie, not really. My first experience driving in the US was actually pretty eventful free - the only thing that I had to keep telling myself was that the seat belt went from left to right, not right to left, and that the handbrake and gears were to my right, not my left. But generally, it's pretty straightforward. The accelerator and brake pedals (and clutch, if driving a manual/stick) are in the same format, which definitely makes life easier. One thing that is different however and may cause some confusion (2.5years living in the US and it still gets me from time to time!) is the location of the turning signal switch/blinker/indicator and the windscreen/windshield wipers. For cars in Australia (which are usually domestically made or imported from Asia), the turning signal switch/blinker/indicator is on the right side, with the windscreen/windshield wiper switch on the left. In the USA however, it's the complete opposite - the turning signal switch/blinker/indicator is on the LEFT, with the windscreen/windshield wiper on the RIGHT. An easy way to remember - if you sit on the left-hand side of the car, the turning signal switch/blinker/indicator is on the left too (and if you think about it, you use this switch more than the windscreen/windshield wiper switch). But believe me, it will take some getting used too - I can't remember the number of times I've heard the screeching of the windscreen wiper scraping against the dry glass, instead of indicating that I wanted to turn left!


Driving on the right-hand side of the road

Always a daunting prospect for an Aussie during their first (and sometimes second and third!) visit to the USA. But again, just like driving on the left-hand side of the car, it's actually not as overwhelming as you may think. Just remember to follow the car in front (so-to-speak). Especially when you're turning onto a different road, whether at traffic lights or not. This is where most people get confused/tempted to drive onto to left-hand side of the road! A little trick I used the first time I drove on the 'other side of the road' was to literally tape the word "RIGHT" onto the dashboard so I was constantly reminded to do so! Honestly, it worked! Just remain calm, drive a little slower than you normally would (but not too slowly!) and you'll be fine!


Round-a-bouts

Obviously you'll be driving on the right-hand side of the road, so you also need to change how you think about round-a-bouts. In Australia, you look to the right to see oncoming traffic and must give-way to those already in the round-a-bout/about to enter the round-a-bout from your right. In the US, it's from the left. And of course, in the US you go anti-clockwise (counter-clockwise), not clockwise - something to remember to ensure you don't have an embarrassing moment!


Seat belts

Despite what you see on TV, seat belts ARE required when either driving or being a passenger in a car. But each state is different when it comes to fines incurred for not wearing a seat belt. States fall under two categories - primary and secondary. Primary means that you can be fined (driver or passenger) for not wearing a seat belt, regardless of whether you have committed another driving offence (ie. drink driving). Secondary laws mean that you can only be fined for not wearing a seat belt if you are also being fined/charged with another offence (ie. speeding). And some states have different rules about passengers in the front seat or back seat(s). But basically, wear a seat belt. Click clack, front and back!


4-way stop signs

Personally, I hate them and don't understand why states don't just introduce round-a-bouts or give-way signs! But despite my reservations, they're still here! Basically, it's a 4-way intersection, where each direction of traffic has to obey the stop sign (in Australia, you'd probably see 2 stop signs and 2 give-way signs). Bottom line, regardless or position, the first car to their respective stop sign has the right of way. Doesn't matter the size of the car, the person driving or how fast they drive, first to the line 'wins'. It's a matter of common sense and courtesy - and sensibility!


Right-hand turns on 'RED' at traffic lights

Now remember, a right-hand turn means you're not cutting across on-coming traffic (you're driving on the right-hand side of the road if you recall!) So if you come to a traffic light and you intend to turn right, but you have a 'RED' light, you may in fact turn right, given there are no cars coming from your left who have a 'GREEN' light or pedestrians crossing the road. Yes, even on the 'RED', you can turn right. The only thing to look out for is a 'no right turn on red' sign - speaks for itself.


U-turns at traffic lights

Once again, all states are different, but in many instances you can do a U-turn at traffic lights (given you have the 'GREEN' turn go-ahead). Just keep an eye out for the 'U-turn acceptable' or conversely, 'no U-turns allowed' signs, and make sure the road/lane you intend to turn onto is wide enough (ie. doing a U-turn in an RV may not be very smart!)


Manual vs Automatic

Unlike in Oz, where manual cars are (generally) cheaper and quite often the preferred choice to the automatic, (speaking from experience, my father would not allow me to get my driver's license on an automatic car; said I needed to know how to drive a manual!), the automatic car is by far the more popular option in America. And ironically enough, they're cheaper than manuals. I'm not really sure why (and I'd hate to throw an 'anti-American' joke out there to say that Americans can't drive a manual!), but be assured, if you're looking to rent a manual (or 'stick'), you'll be hard pressed to find out. But given you'll be driving on the 'wrong' side of the car and the 'wrong' side of the road, it's probably a good thing that you'll be driving an automatic - one less thing to worry about!


Driver's license

Unless you are planning on moving to the US, you won't need to get an American state driver's license to drive here. Your Australian state driver's license will suffice. Rules state that you can drive on a foreign driver's license for 12 months only before having to apply for an American one, but given tourist visas are for 3 months only, this won't be an issue. If you want to double up, you can get an International Driver's License. But in all honesty, rental companies never ask for them - as long as you have a valid Australian driver's license, you're good to go!


Miles, not kilometres!

Yes, the USA still works on the Imperial system of measurement, so road signs and your car's speedometer will be in miles, not kilometres. Generally speaking, the speeds are approximately the same (just equated!) On major freeways/highways/interstates, the maximum speed limit is 75mph (121km/h) in the western states and 70 mph (113km/h) in the eastern states. So a little bit faster than Australian highways/freeways (where 110km/h is the max), but it's roughly on par. A couple of states go up to 80mph, but it's rare (and probably not advisable!) Rural areas range anywhere between 10mph (16km/h) to 45mph (72km/h). Just stick to the posted speed limit and you'll be fine. Speeding fines in the US can be pretty steep, so stick to the speed limit!


Petrol/Gas

While it's technically not about driving, there's one thing to note about petrol/gas. Unlike in Australia, where generally speaking you fill up your car and head inside to pay, quoting the pump number, in the US you will find most gas stations require you to pay up-front, via credit or debit card. Pretty simple really, swipe away, start pumping, done. Actually, it makes a lot more sense really, and it's definitely a lot quicker than having to wait in line to pay for your gas, when the person in front is buying 3 cokes, a newspaper, a bag of chips and 4 candy bars for the road!)


That's about it. Driving in the US is fun really and an experience, given the fact that you are driving on the 'wrong' side of the car and road. Just remember to be calm, act sensibly and drive exactly the same as you would back home - just on the correct side of the road.

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    • Ali Dawson profile image
      Author

      Ali Dawson 5 years ago from Honolulu, HI

      Believe me Danette, I was incredibly nervous the first time I got behind the wheel of a car here. And being in Hawaii too...let's just say no one really pays attention to road rules or driving etiquette here! So I can completely appreciate Americans and Europeans for that matter being a little nervous to drive in Australia!

      Great parents think alike with making kids learn on a stick!

    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 5 years ago from Illinois

      Nice hub with LOTS of great info here! Yes, we Americans still don't do metrics and most of us would have to get a calculator out to convert so I'll give you that. I drive a stick and insisted my boys learn to drive them, whether or not they bought them. It's one of those basic skills (like laundry, cooking, sewing on a button and playing poker) that everyone should know.

      I don't think I'd do well driving on the "wrong" side of the road overseas and would have to take lots of taxis or mass transit. And round-abouts! Don't get me started on those! I know they have a lot of them in Europe and elsewhere but the few I've encountered here have been confusing. Either we Americans don't know how to navigate them very well or maybe they are too small (someone told me once that the ones he drove overseas were much bigger, wider so people didn't seem to be bumping into each other trying to get around them)

      Anyway, I'm sure anyone reading this will find it helpful. Voted up, interesting and useful!

    • profile image

      Stuart 5 years ago

      Haha click clack front and back... think I've heard that one before!

      One thing I found that was useful as well was keeping an eye out on my left-hand side - if I was just inside the lane on the left (driver's side) I was pretty much right. Came in very handy on a narrow bridge just outside St Louis when I found myself in the fast lane with no chance to move across!