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There are the obvious ones. The US has the keep-your-lane system, where as in Europe you are expected to keep to the right (left for UK) as long as possible. On my latest travel to the US, I was confronted with the possibility to go through a red light if you turn right, unless it is explicitly not allowed. So my question is, what a european driver should know when driving in the US. What are the do's and don'ts compared to driving in Europe.

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@AndrewFerrier Great comment, you should turn it into an answer so I could give your credits. You often hear people saying that they wish that Europe would adapt the keep-your-lane system from the US. Funny that there is no such thing. What sign indicates a keep-your-lane road? Is passing on the right then also as forbidden as it is overhere? – user141 Sep 15 '12 at 8:26
The US has the keep-your-lane system I don't think this is true... and I know it's now not true in Kansas. You can now be ticketed for staying in the left lane. – Flimzy Aug 5 '14 at 13:12
The "keep your lane" concept is unknown everywhere on the North American west coast: BC, Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Nevada, etc. – wallyk Sep 17 at 18:15

7 Answers 7

up vote 21 down vote accepted

The other two answers pretty well covered things, but here are a few more notes:

  • In some states, it is legal to make a left turn through a red light if both intersecting streets are one way. (In other words, one can treat the red light as a stop sign.)
  • In some (maybe all?) states, one can be ticketed for driving too slow, even if there is no posted minimum speed limit. (The citation is usually for something like, "Impeding the flow of traffic.")
  • In most states, it is illegal to be seen drinking alcohol in public, including (and especially) as a passenger in a car. However, there are some states in which it is legal for car passengers to drink alcohol. In Mississippi, it is still legal for drivers to consume alcohol while driving, as long as their blood alcohol content is below 0.08%.
  • From personal experience, I've noticed that in some European countries it is common for cars that are about to overtake on a highway to hover for a while between two lanes (I saw this a lot in Iberia). Also, in Scandanavia in particular, I saw a lot of cars in the right lane actually move onto the shoulder while being overtaken. In my experience, I have never seen either of these practices in the US, and they likely violate many states' regulations.
  • Given the automotive boom of the mid-20th century, many large, multi-lane roads were built. As such, putting traffic lights at the intersections of these 3+ lane roads to allow left turns became a bottleneck. Therefore, some states implemented other means of turning left on large roads. For example, the jughandle turn is very common, especially in the Northeast. The "Median U-Turn Crossover" is also very common in Michegan.
  • This last note isn't so much about regulations, but I'd highly recommend bringing or renting a GPS/SatNav. Unlike in most of Europe, I find signage in the US to be particularly bad. For example, in Europe there are often signs in the countryside pointing one to the direction for the nearest cities. In the US, such signs usually only point to the closest highway, so unless you know specifically which highway will point you to your destination, you may be out of luck.

Additions (2011-07-19):

  • In an increasing number of states, it is illegal to operate a mobile phone while driving. The wording of the laws varies by state; in some it is even illegal to touch a mobile phone while driving. In most (if not all) states it is okay to use a hands-free device (e.g., a bluetooth headset), though.
  • In some states (e.g., Oregon and New Jersey) it is illegal to pump your own fuel; all of the gas stations are "full service" (i.e., an attendant must pump the fuel for you). In these states it is not necessary for you to tip the attendant for his or her service, although I am sure it is appreciated. I am not sure about Oregon, but at least in New Jersey I know that it is illegal to exit your vehicle while your fuel is being pumped (presumably for the safety of the attendant). I believe these laws were enacted in the late 1940s/early 1950s because the government thought that pumping fuel was too difficult and hazardous an activity for the average motorist. The laws have probably persisted because repealing them would mean the loss of a great number of gas attendant jobs. In Oregon, it is possible to find yourself stranded after hours in the middle of nowhere until the gas station opens, so plan ahead.
  • If you plan on using a radar detector, the laws vary by state (much in the same way that they vary by country in Europe). In general, it is legal to use a radar detector in all states except Virginia and Washington, D.C. In some states (e.g., Minnesota and California), it is illegal to mount the radar detector from the windshield, since it obstructs the driver's vision.
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Your first and last addition are not a points of difference. The same could be said for Europe. Nice point on gas stations. – user141 Jul 19 '11 at 14:32
@Andra: I know, I just wanted to emphasize the fact that there are not country-wide regulations on those practices; the laws vary state-by-state. Good point though. – ESultanik Jul 19 '11 at 14:54
Moving over to the shoulder to allow a car to pass is a common custom in Texas and presumably many other southern states in the USA, but only on two lane roads. A "Thank you" wave is generally in order if you are the person overtaking the other car in they move over for you. – JohnFx Sep 16 '11 at 15:39
I disagree about the GPS, but for the same reason. I never had big issues driving in the US because if I was on a long trip, I'd plan the itinerary. While in France, for local traffic, you should follow signs to the next big city sometimes 50 km away, even if you drive a couple km. – Vince Nov 16 '12 at 8:16
@JohnFx I thought most states had laws against driving on the shoulder; is that not the case in TX? – Andy Sep 17 at 16:59

To me, these are the two most important things drivers visiting the US should know:

  1. Different states have different laws. Knowing what the law is in California doesn't help if you get pulled over in one of the other 49 states.

  2. Get your information from a trusted source. There's a lot of misinformation out there; the only way to know what the law really says is to get it directly from the state.

    For instance, here's what California's official Driver Handbook says about intersections (below emphasis mine):

    • At intersections without "STOP" or "YIELD" signs, slow down and be ready to stop. Yield to traffic and pedestrians already in the intersection or just entering the intersection. Also, yield to the vehicle or bicycle which arrives first, or to the vehicle or bicycle on your right if it reaches the intersection at the same time as you.
    • At "T" intersections without "STOP" or "YIELD" signs, yield to traffic and pedestrians on the through road. They have the right-of-way.
    • When you turn left, give the right-of-way to all vehicles approaching that are close enough to be dangerous. Also, look for motorcyclists, bicyclists, and pedestrians. When you turn right, be sure to check for pedestrians crossing the street and bicyclists coming up behind you on the right. On divided, highways or highways with several lanes, watch for vehicles coming in any lane you cross. Turn either left or right only when it is safe.
    • When there are "STOP" signs at all corners, stop first then follow the above rules.
    • If you have parked off the road or are leaving a parking lot, etc., yield to traffic before reentering the road.
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same in Europe, different countries have different laws (and they may well contradict each other or even themselves). – jwenting Sep 14 '13 at 6:56
As far as I know, the 4-way stop sign is a North American speciality. These generally function as FIFO queues, but not always. For example, if a pedestrian is blocking the car that arrived first, it will have to wait, and cars parallel to that pedestrian will go. – Andrew Lazarus Sep 17 at 19:16

This isn't a regulation, but it could be very important nonetheless. If stopped by the police, do not have the reflex of reaching into the glove box for the car's papers. This could be interpreted as reaching for a gun, and you risk getting shot preemptively. Once you've stopped your car, remain in your seat, and keep your hands well in evidence (on the steering wheel).

See also more recommendations by a US police officer.

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"Do not keep driving". This is a worrying advise since some people dress up as police officers driving in a police car lookalike to rob you. In some countries the advise is to keep driving until you are in a place with enough witnesses. I can imagine this advise to be also valid in a widespread country like the USA, with many deserted places. – user141 Jul 20 '11 at 6:13
In some countries the real police will rob you. This has happened to two groups of friends of mine in Mexico City. – hippietrail Jul 20 '11 at 8:08
FYI: It is a REALLY bad idea to try to bribe a police officer in the USA. You are more likely to get in further trouble than get out of it. – JohnFx Sep 16 '11 at 15:43
@Andra: As a US resident (but not a police officer) I would definitely stop driving if you get pulled over. I have heard that if you are worried that the car pulling you over is not a real police officer, pull over and when the officer comes to the car, roll down the window and tell them your concern and ask them to call another police car. If you continuing to drive the real police will interpret as you fleeing, presumably because you have an outstanding arrest warrant or something you will be in much more trouble). Personally, I have never, ever worried about this while driving in the US. – auujay Oct 26 '11 at 13:33
Also good to know: in the US, the police car that is pulling you over will stop behind you, not in front of you. Fines are never issued on the spot, the police officer never handles money, and any suggestion of payment will likely be construed as attempted bribery. – 200_success Nov 7 '11 at 11:52

The following apply to California versus Sweden, at least:

  • In California, at uncontrolled intersections (without traffic signs or signals) you yield in theory "to the vehicle or bicycle on your right if it reaches the intersection at the same time as you" (Priority to the right). In practice, though, most intersections are controlled by stop signs or traffic lights, with uncontrolled intersections only in very undeveloped areas with little traffic, making this mostly a non-issue. In Sweden, the same "Priority to the right" [högerregeln] system applies, but the big difference is that many intersections are not controlled, and there are additional signs (priority road, end of priority road, intersection shape and priority) and rules (utfartsregeln, svängningsregeln, etc) to negate the priority to the right or otherwise modify the right of way, making it critical to understand and keep in mind "Priority to the right" all the time.

  • In California, you're advised to "drive in the lane with the smoothest flow of traffic", though in general you're expected to keep to the right (if two lanes) or choose the middle lane (if three lanes). In Sweden, that's true but there's an important exception: if there are two lanes in the same direction and the speed limit is 70 km/h or lower, you are free to drive in any lane and may even pass to the right.

  • In California, there is no guideline for when another driver is passing you. In Sweden, if another driver is trying to pass you, even if the pass is wrong or dangerous, you are obligated to facilitate the pass by moving to the right. You may specifically even drive on the shoulder if it is reasonable.

  • In California, when entering a freeway, "freeway traffic has the right-of-way". In Sweden, if a specific on-ramp exists, neither side has right-of-way. Both sides are obligated to show mutual consideration when merging.

  • In California, you must wear seat belts at all times. In Sweden, seat belts are specifically not required when backing the vehicle or when driving in a parking lot, gas station, etc.

  • In California, you may turn right on red ("you may turn right if there is no sign to prohibit the turn"). In Sweden, there is no such provision, though there is an obscure case where this is possible. If there is a "Stopp vid signal" sign [Stop for the signal] and the traffic light is located after the intersection, the light only applies to you if you are crossing the intersection. If you're turning right, the light does not apply and you may effectively turn right on red. (This is not common.)

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Seriously? One may pass on the right in Sweden? I live in Sweden, my girlfriend is taking her exam in Sweden, but I've never heard this (OK, I do live 650 km from the nearest highway). – gerrit Nov 15 '12 at 16:59
Yes, Google for "omkörning på höger sida". One of the specific exceptions on for example, says "Tillåtet om hastighetsbegränsningen är max 70 km/h och det finns minst 2 markerade körfält i samma riktning. [Allowed if the speed limit is max 70 km/h and there is at least two marked lanes in the same direction.] – jrc Nov 15 '12 at 20:29

In most of (mainland) Europe there's a priority for traffic coming from the right (on an intersection without traffic lights), and you don't necessarily have to stop when you see there's no other traffic.

So one of the things I think a lot of Europeans will have trouble with at first when driving in America is the fact that on an intersection without traffic lights, there's a system of first come first serve, and you ALWAYS HAVE TO STOP (apparently - see the comments - you only have to stop when there is a stop sign). There are a lot of intersections in America which have a stop sign on all four directions, then the first come, first serve system is applied. That's something which doesn't exist in Europe because you simply don't have intersections with stop signs in all directions (mostly only 2 of them and the main road has priority). At least I don't know of any.

I say at first, because I think it's a very good (if not better) system once you get used to it. But that might also have something to do with the fact that most intersections in America are much larger than they are in Europe, so it's usually much easier to see all the traffic coming from the different directions.

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Are you sure about your second paragraph? In Canada you don't have to stop at an intersection unless you have either a stop light or a stop sign, and I haven't observed anything different in my trips to the US or when I lived in Chicago. Wikipedia seems to agree; it says both Europe and the US prioritize traffic from the right at uncontrolled intersections, but mentions nothing about stopping by default. Same as Canada. – Matthew Read Jun 30 '11 at 14:53
Matthew Read is correct. In the US, you only have to stop at an intersection without a traffic light if there is a stop sign (this is the explicit purpose of our stop signs). Many intersections will have stop signs present only for some branches, and not all (i.e. a 4-way intersection where only traffic going North/South has to stop). – Beofett Jun 30 '11 at 18:31
@Matthew, @Beofett: I have been driving mostly in San Francisco, and there you really have to stop at each intersection. It might be that there are indeed stop signs everywhere though... I might have been looking over that. – fretje Jun 30 '11 at 19:08
It is worth noting that the "you don't have to stop without a red-light or stop sign" rule is generally subject to the rules of right-of-way (e.g. if there's a car, bike, or pedestrian that has right-of-way over you, you can't plow through them simply because there was no stop sign). – Beofett Jul 1 '11 at 19:20

In the United States, a traffic light showing a green left arrow indicates a "protected left turn": oncoming traffic has a red signal, as do conflicting pedestrian crossings. Here is an example, taken from an article by the Federal Highway Administration:

Left-turn traffic signal, location unknown

In Europe, a directional arrow signal does not mean that opposing traffic has a red signal. It just means that you can proceed in the direction indicated by the arrow, but still must yield the right of way as usual.

I was once in Italy, turning left at a 4-way intersection where traffic had to turn left or right because the street directly ahead was a one-way street in the wrong direction. To indicate this, the signal showed a left green arrow and a right green arrow. Unfortunately, I irritated an oncoming driver by cutting in front of him. He also irritated me because I thought he was running a red light. It was only a few moments later that I realized that I had been in the wrong, and why.

I can imagine that a European driver in the United States, facing a green left arrow, with cars approaching the intersection from the other direction, would probably wait before turning left, at least until it was clear that those cars were stopping. Any American drivers behind that European would most likely be irritated by that behavior.

Another difference with traffic signals: Most European signals are designed so it is not possible to see the signal for cross traffic, but this is possible with most American signals.

American intersections typically have at least one signal head on the far side of the intersection. Among other advantages, this allows the driver stopped at the stop line to see when the signal changes, because the signal is several meters ahead rather than directly overhead. See, for example, this image:

Intersection of Randall Road and Fabyan Parkway, Geneva, Illinois, United States

A consequence of this is that when you are waiting at a red light, you can see the signal for the cross traffic at a very oblique angle. You can usually see which lamp is illuminated by looking for the light reflecting from the sun shades. When the light for the cross traffic turns yellow, you can prepare to start driving.

European signals are generally placed only at the near side of the intersection. Some consequences of this difference:

  • In Europe, when you stop your car at the stop line, you can't see the main signal head (unless you have a convertible or perhaps a sun roof). Most signals have a small signal head mounted low on the pole, so the driver of the first car can see when to go. (If you are stopped at a signal that lacks this second, smaller light, and you are tall like me, you have a very difficult time seeing the signal.) An example:

Red traffic signal in Paris, France

  • If you allow your car to stop a little bit past the stop line, you are completely out of luck because you cannot see the signal at all.
  • Many European countries have a signal phase immediately preceding the green light, to warn drivers to prepare to start driving. A couple of seconds before the light turns green, the yellow light turns on, so the signal is showing both red and yellow. This is not necessary in the US, because drivers can see when the signals are changing. An example:

Red-and-yellow traffic signal, location unknown

  • In some US intersections, of course, the light doesn't turn green immediately after the cross traffic gets a red light, because, for example, there might be a protected left turn for opposing traffic, or the intersection might be unusually complicated. In such cases, there is often a sign saying "DELAYED GREEN" or "DELAYED GREEN WAIT" in black letters on a white background. This is supposed to tell drivers not to start driving when the cross signal turns red, and to wait patiently for their own light to turn green.

Delayed green sign on U.S. traffic signal

When I was a kid, I had no idea why one might have a "delayed green" -- I always thought, "of course it's delayed; if the green doesn't wait for the other light to turn red, then what's the point of having a traffic light?"

Finally, the delayed green signal can be an arrow indicating a protected left turn. Here is an example from Harrisonburg, Virginia (see the article for a discussion):

Left-turn signal in Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States

(The five-lamp signal has, at the top, a circular red light, with yellow and green arrows on the left, and yellow and green circles on the right.)

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ah the dreaded left turn arrow ... worst invention EVER. it does absolutely nothing for safety and only slows people down. ugh. – sgroves yesterday

Corrected: Great question, but your presumption is partially incorrect: the US does have a not have a keep-your-lane system in many states, except where signs explicitly show, but not all. Many drivers do drive that way, but in fact you are supposed to behave in a similar (although not identical) way to how you do in Europe: stay to the right (or left) by default, moving over only to overtake..

This Wikipedia Page and this page summarise the laws state-by-state.

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This varies state-to-state, and also depending on the number of lanes on the road. specifically states "Do not weave in and out of traffic. Stay in one lane as much as possible". Compared to Australia where there is an explicit "Keep Left Under Overtaking" rule, most of the US is very much a keep-your-lane system - at least on roads with more than 2 lanes. – Doc Sep 16 '12 at 17:21
Doc, I take it back. On digging deeper, it appears you're right about the "most" qualifier, although some states do still have a left-lane-for-overtaking-only system. This page does a pretty good job of summarising this: Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that I've seen "Stay in Lane" signs from time-to-time on highways. I'm now wondering what they are for... if Stay in Lane is the default. – Andrew Ferrier Sep 16 '12 at 17:27
"Stay in Lane" or "Do Not Pass" signs are normally a short-term instruction, normally at a point where the road ahead would make changing lanes dangerous for some reason. eg, going through a tunnel, roadworks, or sudden lane direction changes. These signs are normally accompanied by the lines between the lanes changing to solid lines to depict not to change between them. – Doc Sep 16 '12 at 17:41

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