First you will need your full driving licence. If you still have an original, one-piece UK licence, this is fine – you will just need to show your passport as a photo ID as well. International renters must present a valid license from their country of residence. As a visitor, you will generally find that most car hire companies will require you to be over 21 to rent a car, and there is usually a surcharge for renting a car if you are under 25.
To hire a vehicle, you will usually need to use a credit card to pay for it, and many companies will place a hold on your card for a fixed amount, to cover them in the event of accidents. Our tip would be to find a credit card that includes liability cover and accident cover for car rental, so you can avoid the very high fees that rental car companies charge for this service.
One of the first things to be aware of with the USA is that there are generally two types of law – federal laws, which apply to the whole country, and state laws, which vary depending on the state you are in.
Most traffic laws are set at a state level, which means that they vary depending on the state you are in – things like speed limits, age limits and drink or drug driving laws.
Some things are country wide of course. All traffic for example drives on the right (except for the US Virgin Islands), you need a driving license to drive, and there are speed limits on all roads, although these vary by state.
Checking the car
Next, take a moment to look around the car. Do not just jump in the car and be in a rush to take it out on the road. Take a little time to familiarise yourself with the controls, the lights and the air con before you start. You do not want to be doing this driving at 70 mph on the Interstate if you get too hot or cold.
Have you ever driven an automatic car? If not you have to try really hard to keep that left foot off the pedal. Hitting the brake of an automatic with your left “clutch” foot brings the car to an abrupt stop and is not only uncomfortable for passengers but also very dangerous for anyone in a car behind you. For extra help to try and stop this for the first few miles try bending your leg back so that your foot is almost touching your seat.
Finally, look for the parking brake. US cars often have a parking brake that is operated by your foot (your left foot) down by the pedals.
Once you have familiarised yourself then the next step is to get out of the airport or parking lot. Be prepared, a little research can be crucial. The maps that the US car hire companies supply are normally not always that good. It is always better to come prepared for that first journey with your own map or printed directions if you are not using a Sat Nav. We will move on now to some basic rules that will not be familiar to you, but you will need to know for your first journey.
The biggest difference if you are from the UK (this is not relevant if you are from Europe) is that you will be driving on the right-hand side of the road. On quiet roads it is actually very easy to forget this so in the first few days you will need to keep your concentration levels high. Turning left on a large intersection is also very alien to us Brits, try to follow the arrows on the road, which is by far the easiest way. Getting going from a parking space is also a time when it is easy to slip up and set off on the wrong side of the road.
Drink driving rules are strictly enforced, don’t do it!! Also be careful if you have a drink on the plane on the way over as you could still be over the limit when you pick up your car. In some states it is even illegal to have alcohol inside the cabin of the car, to be safe when purchasing put it in the boot (known as the trunk in the US).
The road names you see hanging from cables above the road are the names of the road you are crossing, not the road you are on! This often catches out drivers new to driving in the USA.
Speed limits are strictly enforced, our advice is to not break them, they are in MPH and very easy to see so there is no excuse.
Alabama, Florida and Georgia all have ‘Move-over’ laws that require drivers to give wide berth to police or emergency* vehicles on the roadside, by either vacating the lane adjacent to the vehicles or slowing to 20 mph below the posted speed limit when approaching the scene. *Tow trucks also count as emergency vehicles when the lights are flashing, and a vehicle is being assisted. This law has now been widened to include service vehicles performing services on the side of the road.
Traffic signals/lights in the USA are normally very visible and hung directly above the road you are on, obey them as Red Light enforcement cameras are becoming common and we are having more and more people coming home having $160 fines waiting for them. In the USA there is an expectation, that if no pedestrians are present, you will turn right on a red light. If it is not actually allowed at a particular intersection there will be a sign saying, ‘no right turn on red’.
If you do turn right on red, the coast must be clear of pedestrians and cars coming either from your left or doing a U-Turn from your right and you must first come to a complete stop (this is very important and strictly enforced).
Roundabouts are fairly rare in the USA compared to what we are used to in Europe, so on minor roads you will find 4 way crossroads (sometimes with 2 lanes going into it from each road like one of our Dual Carriageways) the rule here is to obey the sign and STOP then proceed in order of arrival at the crossroads regardless of whereabouts on the crossroads they arrived.
Drive on the right-hand side of the road (except in the US Virgin Islands!)
Observe all posted speed limits.
Don’t drive if you are over the legal blood alcohol limit, in all states this is a blood alcohol concentration at or above 0.08 percent. Penalties vary by state, but basically, you don’t want to do it.
You must stop at all STOP signs
You must stop for stopped school buses with flashing lights and a stop sign
At least the driver and front seat passenger must wear a seatbelt
As the name suggests, an Interstate is a road that runs across states. These can be compared to Motorways in the UK, or the autobahns in Germany. They are usually at least two lanes, and they have on and off ramps rather than stop signs or traffic lights.
Interstates keep the same number regardless of state – Interstate 40 for example, runs through eight states, and is called Interstate 40 in all of them.
Maximum speeds on the Interstate vary by state, from 60 mph through to 80 mph. Speed limits are clearly posted and should be obeyed.
A State Road is specific to a state. State Road 54 in one State is going to be a different road to a State road in another state.
State roads vary from dual-carriageway styles through to single lane highways, and as they pass through towns, cities and villages, the speed limit can vary from as low as 20 mph up to 75 mph. As always, check local state regulation and obey posted speed limits.
A county road is any road that is maintained by the local county authority, rather than the state or federal system. County roads are usually smaller, slower roads, and they have a “C” or “CR” designation, followed by a number.
They do vary in size and quality, from freeway sized right through to unpaved roads, depending on the area, traffic, and local county budget. Again, as they vary hugely in quality and size, speed limits on County Roads also vary tremendously.
Children, Child restraints and Child seats
Child restraint laws require children to travel in approved child restraint devices, and some allow or need older children to use safety belts. The age at which safety belts can be used instead of child restraints changes depending upon the state. Normally younger children are covered by child restraint laws, and safety belt laws cover older children and adults.