Driving in the US

An introduction to the American way of driving

T he US has a passionate and enduring love affair with the car. Most Americans simply won’t walk anywhere, hence the proliferation of drive-in services, including banks, dry cleaners, fast food outlets, espresso bars, grocery shops, religious services, clinics and marriages. In the US, the car is God and it’s every American’s birthright to own one as soon as he reaches puberty.

Many high schools teach driving as part of their curriculum and any teenager who cannot drive is regarded as something of a freak. Americans wear their cars as people in other countries wear the latest fashions and lately it seems the bigger, the better. Giant sports utility vehicles (SUVs), sort of a small lorry (truck), now account for over half the personal passenger vehicles on the roads!

The US has over 230 million vehicles, while the total population, including those too young to drive, is little more than 288 million – the highest ratio of vehicles to population in the world. The number of registered vehicles exceeds the number of licensed drivers and in some areas, e.g. greater Los Angeles (Autogeddon!), half the metropolitan area is occupied by roads and car parks. The US has the most extensive motorway (freeway) network in the world, covering some 46,500mi of a total of over 3.9 million miles of roads. Because of the total dominance of cars over public transport, it’s almost mandatory to own at least one car in the US.

Accidents and injuries

Not surprisingly, with so many vehicles rushing around, there are many accidents, including a motor vehicle injury on average every 15 seconds and a death every 12 minutes. The US has a worse road death rate relative to its population than most other ‘civilised’ countries (including many notorious for their mad drivers, such as Belgium, France, Italy and Spain). There are more than 41,000 motor-vehicle related deaths and some three million injuries (many serious) a year. In an effort to reduce teenage deaths, restrictions have been imposed on teenage drivers in many states in recent years, including prohibiting them from carrying teenage passengers (many ‘accidents’ are a result of teenagers showing off to their friends, often when drunk).

The first thing you notice when driving any distance in the US is that it’s a BIG country. In some regions, you can drive for miles without seeing another vehicle, and people living in remote rural areas think nothing of spending four or five hours behind the wheel to visit friends or do the weekly shopping. Highways and city streets are generally kept as straight as possible (American cars aren’t noted for their cornering ability), and streets in most cities are laid out on a grid pattern.

In the north of the country severe frosts and lack of maintenance leave many roads (particularly in the cities) in poor condition with huge potholes. Federal, state and local communities fight a constant battle to keep roads and bridges in an acceptable condition and many interstate highways are in urgent need of repair.

Hours to avoid

If possible, you should avoid rush hours, which can be a nightmare. Times vary according to the city, but are usually between 7am and 9.30am, and from 4pm to 6.30pm. In some cities, rush hours start earlier and/or end later. In Los Angeles, for example, rush hours last from 7am to 11am and from 3pm to 8pm, particularly on the motorways. In fact, Los Angeles has a more or less permanent traffic jam. Small towns usually have shorter rush hours, e.g. 7.30am to 8.30am and 4.30pm to 5.30pm.

Around 10 million residents of major cities spend at least 90 minutes each day driving to and from work, and in southern California three-hour ‘commutes’ are common (many people leave home at 5am or 6am to avoid morning rush hours and stay late to avoid the evening crush). In many cities there are special driving rules on major thoroughfares during rush hours, where parking is prohibited.

Many areas experience heavy traffic jams on Fridays, when the mad weekend rush starts, and on Sundays when the lemmings return. It’s best not to drive at all in some cities unless absolutely necessary, as traffic congestion can be horrendous at most times and parking costly (illegal parking is even more expensive). Park-and-ride car parks are provided in the suburbs of many cities, although they aren’t widely used, as public transport is poor and parking isn’t usually difficult to find, except in major cities.

Publicly funded car pooling (or ride sharing) schemes and car pool lanes have been introduced in most states during the last decade or so in an effort to ease traffic congestion, and high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes have been created on urban freeways in many areas. These are reserved during peak hours for buses, minibuses and cars with a minimum number of passengers (usually two or three). However, they’ve had little success, as commuting times in most areas haven’t increased sufficiently to force people to seek alternatives to driving alone (a sharp rise in petrol prices coupled with better public transport might do the trick).

The US is slow to invest in fast, frequent and inexpensive public transport. In fact, it isn’t happening at all in many cities. It’s indicative that the metropolitan area with the worst traffic problems (Los Angeles) also has one of the worst urban public transport systems in the US (and the world). Meanwhile, some states are independently taking steps to reduce pollution. California was the first state in the nation to introduce a separate car emissions testing (smog testing) programme, designed to force car manufacturers to produce cleaner vehicles.

The highway system is the responsibility of state, county and municipal authorities, and not the federal government. Therefore traffic laws often vary from state to state, although all Americans drive on the same side of the road (except perhaps when drunk!) and there’s general uniformity with respect to road signs and traffic (stop) lights.

Most road signs are uniquely American, although international signs are being introduced in many areas. Never assume that the motoring laws in one state are the same as in another. Detailed information about motoring laws in all states, US territories, and Canadian provinces is provided in the Digest of Motor Laws, published annually by the American Automobile Association and issued free to members.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in America. Click here to get a copy now.

Further reading

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