It probably won’t take long for you to observe that traffic, road and pedestrian (a person walking) rules and expectations in the U.S. vary noticeably from your home country. You may even notice different practices apply in different parts of the country, depending on the environment and location. What you can expect from drivers and pedestrians in large cities will certainly vary greatly from what you can expect from them in smaller towns or more rural areas.
American drivers tend to abide by the road rules more closely than in many other countries. That does not mean that no one breaks the law by speeding, running red lights, or not stopping at stop signs. Driving just occurs in a more orderly manner in the U.S. than in many places around the world. Perhaps that has to do with the dedication of police forces to maintaining order and punishing disorder, or perhaps it has to do with the democratic mindset of Americans. Many foreigners admit astonishment at how much more organized and accommodating drivers and roads in the U.S. are compared to many other countries.
In the U.S., cars drive on the right side of the road. Cars are made for the driver to sit on the left side of the vehicle, and operate any gear shift, etc. with his/her right hand.
Crossing the Street
You will notice “zebra striped” white lines across the asphalt at intersections in towns and cities. These crosswalks are intended to designate an area for pedestrians to use when crossing the street. Crossing at any other area not designated as a crosswalk is considered jaywalking, an offense that can earn you a traffic ticket. Many towns and cities have installed pedestrian lights at larger intersections. These coordinate with the traffic signals that regulate when the cars should stop and go in that intersection. A white or green flashing symbol indicates that you can safely cross the street in that direction without having to worry about cars. When you should not cross, a red flashing symbol will alert you to the fact that the cars will not be stopping at the intersection during that time.
On less busy streets, many drivers will slow down to allow a pedestrian to cross the street when they see someone waiting. This is simply a driver courtesy and you should not expect it. If someone does slow and allow you to cross in front of them, it is considered appropriate to wave your thanks to the driver.
Parking spaces are clearly delineated by white or yellow lines painted on the pavement. If you park horizontal to the road, along the curb, you must 1) not block any other car already parked there, 2) not block a driveway or garage entrance/exit, 3) check for any No Parking signs, 4) check for any parking meter associated with that space. If you notice parking meters at regular intervals along the street, you must put coins in the meter to pay for your parked car for as long as you plan to leave it there. If you do not, you will receive a parking ticket. Before placing your coins in the meter, check the times posted on it to make sure that you need to pay. In some areas, there are days and times that do not require payment, like weekends, or after 7:00 p.m., etc.
Meters generally take only nickels, dimes and quarters. For each coin you add to the meter, the digital readout will indicate how many minutes you have paid for. If your time runs out and you have not moved your car, the meter reader can come along and place a ticket under your windshield wiper. Do not just throw your ticket away and think you have gotten away with it. These tickets are filed with the city, and if you do not send or bring in the indicated amount by the date indicated on the ticket, the police will issue a warrant for your arrest.
If you choose to park in a parking garage, you will either pay the attendant or automated machine as indicated. Some parking garages charge by the hour and others charge a flat fee for the day. For special events, some business lots, streets and driveways not usually intended as parking for the general public will sell parking. Attendants will hold signs or wave flags to get you to park in their temporary lot. This is perfectly legal and generally as safe as any other parking lot. The closer to the event that you park, the more you will pay.
If you ever park in a No Parking zone, marked with a sign that shows a black P in a red circle with a diagonal line across it, you run the risk of your car getting towed. In order to get your car back from the impound lot where they take it, you will need to pay a fine.
Most colleges and universities sell parking passes to students. These passes are valid for the school year and allow you to park in designated parking areas for the university. You can inquire about purchasing a pass when you register for your classes.
In the U.S., an octagonal red Stop sign indicates that the driver at that intersection must come to a full stop. Four-way stops require that cars from all four directions must stop and take their turn. If you see any other cars at any of the other three streets, each car will move forward into the intersection in the order in which they arrived at the intersection. Two-way stops require that the cars driving on the less major road must stop and wait for an opportunity to cross or turn onto the major street when traffic allows.
Universally, a red light indicates stop, a green light indicates go, and a yellow light indicates slow down. A green arrow indicates that the cars in the turn lane may turn. In the U.S., and unless otherwise indicated by a posted sign on the traffic light, you may turn right on a red light if you do not see any oncoming traffic coming in the lane or road you plan to turn into. Before turning though, you must come to a full stop at the red light.
If a traffic light does not appear to be working properly, each driver should approach the intersection slowly, and come to a full stop regardless of the color of the light. Keep track of cars arriving at the intersection at about the same time, so that each vehicle can take its turn crossing the intersection in the order in which they arrived at the corner. Sometimes a police officer will stand in the intersection and direct traffic to avoid confusion. A hand raised, palm out in your direction indicates that you should stop. A moving hand motioning you forward indicates that you should move in the direction indicated.
When cars attempt to merge into traffic, U.S. drivers generally cooperate to allow them into the flow. If the number of lanes have been reduced due to an accident or road construction, the majority of drivers will work together to gradually integrate merging vehicles into the appropriate lanes. Common courtesy usually presumes that each vehicle will allow one car to merge in front of him/her thus maintaining a fairly smooth flow to continue.
When leaving a large event like a parade or sporting event where many cars are all attempting to exit at the same time, a similar merging courtesy will likely prevail. Traffic will not move quickly because so many cars want to pass through a relatively small area at the same time, but if everyone works together to allow cars to merge and work into the flow, it will go much more smoothly than if everyone just looks out for themselves. Patience will come in handy during these situations
Accidents and Emergencies
In the event of an accident on the road, emergency responders will need to get to the car(s) involved. If your car is blocking them from getting to the scene, you should pull over as indicated to allow them to get by you. Flashing lights and/or sirens will indicate which vehicles need to get through.
In the U.S., when you hear a siren or see flashing red and blue lights, you should slow down and pull over as far to the right as you can to allow emergency response vehicles to get by. Once the responders have passed by, you may pull back into the flow of traffic. If while sitting at a traffic light you hear sirens or see lights, check to make sure you are not blocking the emergency vehicle from getting through the light. They will take the least occupied lane, so even if you are in the right lane, if they continue approaching in that lane, move over wherever you can to allow them to pass.
Even if you have a green light and plan to cross into an intersection, when you hear sirens or see flashing emergency lights, pause to see if they will need to go through the intersection. Allows give way to the emergency vehicles regardless of the traffic light indicators.
Accidents along the road can really tie up traffic because everyone has to go around them, thus putting all the cars into fewer lanes. However, the other traffic problem comes from drivers of the cars passing by the accident. If everyone tries to look and see what happened, that slows traffic even further, and often causes more accidents. Keep your eyes on the road and the traffic to avoid creating more congestion.
Getting Pulled Over by the Police
If you see police lights flashing in your rear view mirror, you should slow down and pull over to the side of the road as soon as safety allows. If the police officer simply wanted to get past you, you can pull back into the road after the vehicle goes by. However, if the police officer has pulled you over for an infraction, he/she will approach your car along the driver’s side. Keep your hands where the officer can see them and lower your window to speak to him/her. The first thing you will probably be asked for is your license and registration. Give the officer your driver’s license, which you should always carry with you and the car’s registration, which you should always keep in the car. Speak politely to the officer.
The officer will likely take your documents back to his/her vehicle to verify them. An on-board computer or radio conversation with the police station will check your license for any outstanding warrants, and make sure the vehicle you are driving has not been reported stolen. When the officer returns to your car, he/she will likely tell you why they stopped you: speeding, a non-functioning light, running a red light, suspicion of intoxication, etc. Do not attempt to argue with the officer. Answer any questions respectfully and follow any instructions or requests.
If the officer writes you a ticket for a traffic violation, you will need to sign it and take a copy with you, and then you can resume your drive. Depending on the offense, you may have to get in the police officer’s car and be taken to the police station. However, if you have been charged with DWI (Driving While Intoxicated) or DUI (Driving Under the Influence) or something considered more serious than a traffic violation, the officer will likely have you get out of your car and demonstrate your sobriety, get handcuffed, etc. Once again, do not attempt to resist arrest or act out in anger towards the officer.
When making an arrest, the officer will read you your rights and let you know what will happen next. Pay attention and comply with the officer’s instructions.
You will hear car horns far less frequently in the U.S. than in many other countries. The larger the town or city you live in, the more horns you will hear. Do not blast your horn out of frustration or anger. If the driver in front of you has not noticed the light turn green, a light tap on the horn will alert him/her without causing annoyance.
With more and more people driving, we experience more and more traffic, resulting in longer commutes, shorter tempers and irritated drivers. For someone having a bad day, the slightest infraction can tip them off and trigger outrage. Do not take out your frustrations and aggression on other drivers. You never know how someone might react, so don’t take any chances in engaging with another driver.
Some roads across the country have a specially marked bike lane for those riding bicycles. This simply allows a narrow lane on the right side of the road that gives bikers a portion of the paved portion of the road which drivers should not traverse.
Freeways and some highways provide Rest Areas at various intervals along the road. The pull-off spaces give travelers an opportunity to stretch their legs, use the bathroom, have a picnic, get a drink (water at a drinking fountain, or a canned/bottled drink from a machine), or a snack (again from a machine).