Driving Laws in the United States What You Should Know

Did you know? Roughly seven million people work in the construction industry, and many of those keep the United States’ roads safe and in good repair. But you don’t need to be familiar with road construction to know that, if you’re spending any amount of time in the driver’s seat in the U.S., American driving laws are important. From bent bumpers to speeding tickets, lacking a clear grasp of American driving laws can get you into substantial trouble. And while having good accident attorneys is great, but you’d probably rather not require their services too often!

If you’re from a country other than the U.S., or even if you simply want a refresher course on American driving laws, we’ve got you covered. In this article, we’ll discuss some of the most important American driving laws to remember, as well as a few surprising laws that you might not expect to apply anywhere. Some American driving laws are fairly commonplace, while others are somewhat unique to America, and others — well, let’s just say we’re not always sure why they were passed to the law in the first place. One way or the other, hopefully, you’ll have fun and learn something along the way. Buckle up as we begin our discussion on the American driving laws you should know.

Tips for Driving in the United States

Exploring the United States by car is perhaps the single best way to experience all that this country has to offer. Whether you’re exploring the entire state of California or taking a historic drive through Route 66, America’s enormous network of well-connected, well-maintained roads allows for a full experience.

Of course, nothing ruins a great road trip like getting pulled over and having to hire a DUI defense attorney. And while some American driving laws are logical and straightforward — don’t drink and drive, for instance — others aren’t so obvious. To make sure you don’t end up on the wrong side of a courtroom with a criminal defense attorney, keep reading for our top tips for driving in the United States.

Know the Difference Between State and Federal Laws

One of the first things you need to be aware of when you’re driving in the United States is that there are two types of law you will subject to: federal laws, which apply to the entire country, and state laws, which vary from state to state. Like laws regarding bail bonding, most traffic laws are set at the state level, which means they can change depending on which state you’re in. This is why the speed limit signs on the same interstate are different from state to state. Driving age limits and laws applying to transport and the use of drugs and alcohol are also set at the state level.

Federal traffic laws include driving on the right side of the road (except in the U.S. Virgin Islands), having a valid license to drive, and observing speed limits on all roads. These apply everywhere, no matter where in the country you are.

Age Limits for Driving

The age you’re legally allowed to drive alone at varies from state to state. However, it always falls between 16 and 18 years. Depending on a state’s laws, younger teenagers may be allowed to drive with a special permit, as long as a licensed adult driver is with them. Child custody lawyers may only work with the parents in a case, but traffic laws apply equally to anyone who gets behind the wheel of a car. Don’t assume you can let your kid drive just because you’re there with your license.

Just because you’re 18 doesn’t mean you can necessarily travel without any complications, however. If you need to rent a car to get around, you may find that rental companies won’t serve you if you’re under 21 years old. Additionally, they may require a surcharge to rent a car if you’re under 25. Make sure you’re aware of restrictions like this before you make your travel plans.

Rules That Apply in Every State

As with every other country in the world, there are certain basic driving rules you’ll need to observe, no matter where you go in the United States. These include the following:

  • Always drive on the right-hand side of the road (again, except for in the U.S. Virgin Islands).
  • Obey all posted speed limits.
  • If you have a blood alcohol concentration at 0.08 percent or higher, do not drive. Penalties vary by state, but it will always get you into trouble (be sure and have a good OWI defense attorney if it does happen to you).
  • Always stop at stop signs.
  • Always stop and wait if you approach a stopped school bus with flashing lights and a stop sign displayed (see below).
  • The driver and front-seat passenger must always be wearing seatbelts (and really, so should anyone else in the car).

Although most traffic laws are set at the state level, these laws are pretty much the same across every state.

Laws Around School Buses

School bus stop laws dictate how drivers should behave when they approach a school bus that’s stopped to pick up or drop off children. As you can imagine, traffic laws are very strict about protecting young pupils’ safety as they boarding and getting off the bus.

When a school bus stops to pick up students, its lights will start flashing and a stop sign will extend out from its side. When this happens, all drivers on both sides of the road must stop and wait until the bus’s lights stop flashing and the stop sign disappears. It’s best to stop your car at least 20 feet away from the stopped bus. Under no circumstances should you edge in closer or attempt to pass a stopped school bus.

Understand and Obey Traffic Lights

Most countries in the world use traffic lights to control traffic at intersections, and the U.S. is no exception. In the United States, the colors used on traffic lights are red, yellow, and green.

When a red traffic light is visible, it means you must stop. Usually, there will be a line in the road indicating where you should stop your car. This will be behind the crosswalk, allowing room for pedestrians to safely pass in front of you. If you’re trying to make a right turn when the light turns red, you’re usually allowed to go ahead and make your turn as long as there’s no oncoming traffic from the other direction. However, if you see a sign saying something to the effect of, “No turn on red,” you’ll know to stay put until the light turns green.

A yellow light means the light is about to turn red, and you must treat it like a red light as you approach it: always stop for a yellow light. The exception to the rule is if you’re already crossing the road under a green light when the light turns yellow. If this happens, you may safely finish crossing the road. If you’re only just approaching the intersection when the light turns yellow, however, it’s not advisable to try and “beat the light.” Patience can literally be life-saving on the road.

A green light means it’s safe to drive across. You should still briefly look both ways as you cross the road, just to be safe. A good rule of thumb is to never trust other drivers to follow all traffic laws perfectly — if there happened to be a rogue driver plowing through the intersection the wrong way, you’d want to see it in time to stop. Also, remember to go ahead and stop if the green light turns yellow as you’re approaching it, unless you’re already pulling through the intersection by then.

Drive Slowly Through Construction Zones

We mentioned construction workers at the start of this article, and we’re bringing them up again now, because you’ll see them frequently along America’s roads. Having such an enormous network of roadways means people are needed to repair them constantly. When you come across a construction site, it’s incredibly important that you slow down, especially if there are workers standing or working alongside the road. If you see signs telling you to stop, slow down, or move to one side of the road, always follow them. Penalties for accidentally hitting a road worker can be extreme, so be sure and exercise caution when you’re driving past. Good workers compensation lawyers are amazing when you’re the one being compensated, but you definitely want to avoid being the defendant in a court case from hitting a worker.

Know the Different Road Types

There are many types of roads across the United States, but you will find that they land into one of three categories: interstate roads, state roads, and county roads.

An interstate is a road that runs across state lines, joining multiple states together. They usually have at least two lanes, and instead of intersections with traffic lights, they have “on” and “off” ramps. Interstate speed limits are higher than on most roads, typically ranging from 60 to 80 miles per hour.

A state road is specific to the state it’s in. They’re usually single-lane highways, and their speed limit can range from 20 miles per hour (usually when driving by towns and villages) to as high as 75 miles per hour.

Last, county roads are maintained by local county authorities, instead of the state or federal system. These types of roads have the most variety, ranging from full-sized roads that look like state highways to unpaved lanes running between fields. County roads will vary greatly in quality, depending on the budget of the local county and the number of people regularly using the roads. Speed limits on these roads also vary tremendously.

Understand Stop Signs

Navigating stop signs on American roads can be tricky for foreign drivers. Of course, stopping is simple enough, but American driving laws that apply at intersections with stop signs can be confusing.

When two roads intersect, there are four “entrances” and four “exits” in the intersection. Often there will be traffic lights to dictate when it’s safe for each driver to drive through the intersection, but on roads with less traffic, there might only be stop signs. In the case of two roads intersecting, this would normally be considered a four-way stop. At these intersections, the car that arrives first has right of way. So if you approach an intersection at the same time as someone else, but they stop just a second before you do, then they have the right of way. If you both stop at exactly the same time, then the driver on the left must give way to the car on the right.

Sometimes drivers on one of the intersecting roads will have stop signs, while passing drivers on the opposite road won’t. In this case, you simply have to wait until there’s no one approaching the intersection from the other way, then drive across.

Strange American Driving Laws

While most traffic laws in the United States are logical and straight-forward, some of them are surprising and oddly specific, especially laws at the local level. You probably won’t find yourself calling a bail bond agent after breaking one of these laws, but nonetheless, the following are some of the weirdest American driving laws you’re likely to find.

Mind Where You Honk in Little Rock

In Little Rock, Arkansas, there are strict and oddly specific rules regarding when drivers can honk their horns. In 1938, it was decided that you would be penalized for honking any time after 9:00 PM — at sandwich shops and cold beverage stands, specifically.

No Bathrobes in California

In the state of California, there’s actually a dress code for female drivers. According to the law, a woman can get pulled over for wearing a bathrobe while driving.

Always Have a Steering Wheel in Illinois

We’re not sure how you could drive a car without a steering wheel, but someone in the town of Decatur, Illinois, must have thought someone else might try it. The town specifically made it illegal to drive a car without a steering wheel.

Mind Your Manners in Maryland

You probably wouldn’t hire an injury attorney after someone insulted you, but in Rockville, Maryland, things are a little more strict. It’s actually illegal to use profanity on any street, highway, or sidewalk where a passerby could hear you. You should probably keep your road rage in check anyway, but be extra cautious in Rockville.

Keep Your Clothes On in New York

In most places, you can get away with changing your clothes in your car, at least as long as you’re discreet about it. But in New York, it’s apparently illegal to undress while in your vehicle.

Keep it Clean in Minnesota

If you’re heading into Minnetonka, Minnesota, you might want to hose down your car first. Driving around with tires or wheel wells clogged with dirt is considered a public nuisance there.

By always following the rules, you’ll stay out of trouble and avoid having to call upon a criminal defense law firm for legal help. And there you have it: the most important American driving laws to be aware of, as well as some of the most surprising and unexpected traffic laws from around the country. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this article and learned something new.