Many visitors to the United States go to typical tourist areas like New York, Washington DC, Orlando, Chicago, Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Especially in the bigger cities, it is not necessary, nor even desirable, to have your own vehicle - although many of even the larger cities do not have good public transportation. Because of the sheer size of the United States and the American preference to the automobile over mass transit, traveling by car is a good way to get around and to see sights of the "real" America away from the cities. The United States has a very good system of streets and highways, including the huge Interstate highway system that includes modern limited-access expressways (also called freeways) throughout the country. Even secondary roads are a good way to travel to see more typical American lifestyle.

Some possibilities for interesting car trips are:

  • Driving in the Northeastern states of New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine during the Fall season, when colorful foliage appears in the mountainous areas around quaint villages.
  • Driving a portion of the famous "Route 66", which opened up the western states to drivers. Route 66 is no longer an active highway, but its 2000-mile path from Chicago, Illinois to Los Angeles, California is well marked, travels through varied terrain, and contains many interesting sights along or just off the highway. For example, driving south from Chicago on historic Route 66 (now Interstate highway 55 in that area), tourists can visit Springfield, Illinois, the hometown of President Abraham Lincoln. Along the way, get off the highway and stop in some typical midwestern communities for a meal and see the American way of life. The longest existing part of Route 66 is in Arizona.
  • Driving up the Pacific seaboard, especially between Los Angeles and San Francisco, using the coastal highway.
  • Driving off the uninteresting Interstate highway system onto secondary highways for at least a part of the journey, to see farms and travel into smaller communities. If you saw the animated motion picture, "Cars", it featured characters in a little town that was formerly on Route 66, but was bypassed by a new Interstate highway.

If you are wary about driving in the United States, it is suggested that you rent a vehicle for only a portion of your stay in a city. Use taxis and public transportation for sights in the city, then rent a vehicle for a few days' travel outside the city. The best way is to not rent a vehicle from a location in the center of the city, but instead rent it at the airport, so that you will not need to drive in congested traffic in the city core. However, there may be some extra "airport" fees (taxes) for this. It is also possible to rent a car in one city and return it in another city, although extra "one-way" fees may apply.

If you are a confident driver, you may want to rent a vehicle just to drive around the environs of a city or take a single or multiple-day side trip. For example:

  • Around Los Angeles, the sights are scattered from San Diego (two hours south), Orange County (Disneyland area), and the areas of downtown, Hollywood, and the beach areas of Venice, Santa Monica, Malibu and even more distant Santa Barbara.
  • Around San Francisco, a trip over the Golden Gate Bridge to waterfront communities along northern San Francisco Bay and onward to the wine country around Napa.
  • Around Orlando, an easy trip 45 miles east to the surfing community of Cocoa Beach and the Kennedy Space Center, where mankind first departed to the Moon.
  • Around Miami, a trip into the Everglades swamp and over bridges from island to island along the Overseas Highway to Key West.
  • Around Seattle, a trip west into the forests of the Olympic National Park area.
  • Around Washington DC, a drive into nearby Virginia to see the home of George Washington at Mount Vernon, and onward to the more distant Blue Ridge Mountains.
  • Around Las Vegas, a trip into the nearby desert parks, either just outside the city, or the more distant sights like Death Valley or the Grand Canyon.
  • Around Boston, driving South towards Plymouth Rock, West towards the Mohawk Valley, and North to Maine, where on the way there are exits that will take you to some of the oldest towns in the nation, many of them located right on the water and having fresh local seafood or in the case of the Mohawk Valley, wild forests full of bears and the Appalachian Trail.

 

Part 1: Getting a car

 In the United States, renting a car is a fairly common practice that businessmen, families on vacation, and foreign visitors engage in. Car rental agencies (such as Herz, Budget, Enterprise and many more) have branch offices in nearly every city in America, although they are most commonly found at airports.  There are also brokerage companies such as Rentalcars.com, Economy Bookings, CarRentals.com, Travelauto.com and AutoEurope.com who exclusively deal with car rentals.  A wide variety of car makes and models are available to rent -- everything from a 4X4 pickup truck or full size SUV to a tiny VW Beetle. Prices typically vary depending on the make and model (a high-end sedan or sports car will be very expensive, whereas a small economy car will be much less, for example)  and charges per day can vary -- anywhere from $15 to $85 or more.  Reservations should be made in advance, usually without the need for a credit card, although you may be able pop into a rental office and secure a car without a reservation, depending on the time of year. Hybrid cars are available and popular, so if this is your aim, you may want to make a reservation, and you should expect to pay more than for a typical compact car.

Below are listed a few things to remember at the rental agency:

  • Take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the controls on your rented car. You may find that many of the controls are on or around the steering wheel and not on the dash. You don't want the radio on full volume instead of the wipers when its raining. A few states require headlights when its raining so find that switch before it begins to rain. 
  • For British, Irish, Australian or Japanese drivers, remember that the steering wheel will be on the opposite side of the car you'd expect it to be - driving is on the right, so it makes sense to have the steering wheel on the left so you can see what is coming in the other direction. Be careful as you handle the keys as well: many cars in America have keys which double as a means to lock the car by remote either on the key itself or attached to it.
  • Most  American rental cars are "automatics", which means they have no clutch and you don't shift gears. These cars drive a bit differently and if you are used to a manual transmission, you may find yourself using the brakes more than you are used to. You can manually shift an automatic transmission but unless you are driving in the mountains there is usually no need to do so. Manual transmissions are available, but you have to ask for them and they usually are available only with "sporty" cars. Keep in mind that with no clutch pedal, you should always and only use your right foot. Hitting the brakes with your left foot by accident will most likely make you stop abruptly, and could potentially get you hurt.
  • Purchase car rental insurance when driving a hired car - all states require some sort of liability insurance. It is available at most rental car dealers, you can also purchase it online and can be of great assistance in the event of an emergency. Important Tip: Before you leave on your trip, you should check to see if your current car insurance covers your car rentals as well. Double-check to ensure you will be covered for liability, collision, and loss-of-use coverage. This can save you in excess of $20 per day -- car rental agencies typically make most of their profits on insurance, and it will be quite expensive, but you must have insurance in all states. Especially if you travel as a tourist, medical expenses can be extremely high in United States, and remember that if you have the misfortune of a car accident, you have the obligation to pay medical expenses for anyone you've hurt. 
  • It is a very good idea to carry 'uninsured drivers' insurance - which covers you in the event that your car is damaged or your are injured by an uninsured driver. Check the fine print in your travelers' insurance or rental car insurance to make sure this is covered.
  • Some rental cars have  built in GPS systems that  are accurate and can typically  tell you where you need to go very easily-some will even talk to you as you are driving.  They are, however, an added feature that costs extra. If you cannot afford a GPS system, most car rental agencies will provide you with a free map of the city center, and nearly any gas station you can find will stock road atlases and area maps that are quite affordable. Furthermore, online map sites like Mapquest and Google Maps work for both the U.S. and  most other countries as well. Before your trip, it might be worth printing out the directions and area maps for each location you plan to visit. If you already have a portable GPS system, bring it along -- the same system will likely work just fine on U.S. roads, but check with the manufacturer first. You may have to download the maps for the U.S.
  • Do not depend solely upon your GPS unit in rural areas of the United States. There have been many headlines of poor folks dying in snowbanks or driving into lakes because their GPS unit led them on to dirt roads or even through fields. Get a paper map, learn how to read it and keep it with you in rural areas.
  • "Hidden GPS". In most states, all rental cars will have a "hidden" GPS that allows the rental company to "track" where you have taken the car. If you drive it out of one state into another without the company's permission, the hidden GPS will alert the company and you may get charged an extra fee. Make sure you inform the company if you plan to drive the car into another state. California does not allow hidden GPS tracking systems in rental cars.
  • The legal minimum age to obtain a driver's license in the United States varies from state to state but the average age is about sixteen. However, it is generally the aim of most car rental agencies to avoid renting cars to young or very old drivers as statiscally they are involved in the most accidents and mayhem involving automobiles. For those under 25 or over 70, check with the car rental agency before you leave on your trip to ensure that they will rent you a car – many have policies that prohibit rentals to people of a certain age, even though you may be legally able to drive. Some car rental companies will rent to younger drivers, but they may charge as much as an extra $10 per day, or more.
  • If you are a smoker, be sure to rent a car that allows it. Some rental companies do not allow smoking in any of their fleet - Budget is one company like this. Smoking in a non-smoking car will earn you a fine of up to $250.
  • Many makes and models of minivans and Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs) come equipped with DVD players.  It might be a good idea to invest in one with this feature if you are traveling with children or teenagers on the long journeys typical between American cities – children who are entranced by an exciting movie tend not to ask, "Are we there yet?" as much.
  • Read your rental contract, and keep a copy of it in the glove compartment.  It will come in handy if you encounter any trouble and the fact is you haven't actually rented the car until you have signed the agreement. If there is anything you object to within the agreement or if you find something not to your satisfaction with the car, it is much easier to negotiate with the agency before you have signed the contract and driven the car off their lot.
  • Inspect your rental car before you leave the car lot. Make note and if possible, take photos of any dents, dings or scratches and/or inside damage or dirt. Be sure to notify the office personel if you see anything wrong with the car and be sure they note it on their paperwork. This will avoid you getting charged for damage you did not do when you return the car.
  • It is of great benefit to carry a passport with you, in addition to your drivers license and whatever credit card you used to book the car. Your passport is a valuable proof of ID that can be used in a multitude of settings, including this one.  The license you use at home is also crucial to take with you and have with you on the road – you will likely not be allowed to rent a car without one, and if you are pulled over by a police officer, you may be sent to jail if you can't show proof of a drivers license. When you are driving, keep your passport, license, and rental car agreement with you at all times as you may not know when you will need them next.

 


Part II: Rules of the Road

Basic Highway Primer


The United States Interstate Highway System has definite rules and regulations: East of the Mississippi River the typical speed limit is 65 mph and west of the Mississippi it is roughly 70. Speed limits are determined by population so the more rural the area, the higher the speed limit ( i.e., New Jersey's limits will always be lower than Arizona's).  It is also true that one can tell what direction they are going in if they pay attention to the interstate's number:  in either direction, odd numbers usually head north-south, even usually run east-west.

Highway signs are often color coded to indicate what they mean:

Signs with a green field and  white letters indicate route information; these are the most common and they indicate places, distances, and places (including exits.) These are normally found on the side of the road or are overhead and some will quote the distance between where the sign stands and a destination the highway passes through.

Signs with a blue field and white letters are hospitality signs. They indicate rest areas, food, hotels, hospitals,  gasoline, and often most importantly for long trips, where the next bathroom (or "rest area") is. In more remote areas, please note that the last two of these amenities are less common -- be careful about how much gasoline is in your tank if you are crossing the desert or plains.

Brown signs with white letters are heritage signs. These indicate historical attractions, entertainment (amusement parks), campgrounds, and natural attractions like national parks or protected natural areas.  These are important to tourists in particular as most often it is the desired destination: normally they occur within a twenty mile radius of the location and some (but not all) will tell you which exit to use. 

Red or orange signs equal "caution, danger, or stop."  They must be heeded. In the USA, it is very foolish to take this only as a suggestion as one may find onesself being blindsided by another car and endangering anyone with him. A blinking red light means the same thing as a stop sign -- stop the car completely, and proceed when safe to do so. An upside down triangle means you must yield to crossing traffic.

Yellow signs or lights mean "caution." A blinking yellow light means "proceed with caution," but does not incidate that you should stop the car. Yellow signs with black lettring are most commonly found in areas that contain the presence of wildlife or small children – a useful thing to know, since neither are known for their judgment around cars or roads. In areas with children (usually suburbs and near schools) it is wise to keep an extra watchful eye out for bicycles and kids, especially during daylight. It is important to remember that in America animals large enough to do damage to your car are not necessarily restricted to wilderness, wildlife sanctuaries , or rural areas – they can and do live in suburban areas or abandoned/public land. For example, a section of Interstate 90 less than 40 miles from Boston has become infamous in recent years  for fatal accidents involving moose – an animal weighing up to a ton and over 7 feet tall (2.5 m). Similar events happen in other states with bears, cougars, and deer every year, especially during the spring and fall, so if you are driving in fog or past sunset and see one of these signs it pays to keep your headlights on and keep an eye open for animals like these. Deer "in rut" who are chasing a mate can appear out of nowhere in a matter of seconds, and the results are often deadly.

White signs with black letters or numbers are called "regulatory signs" and must be obeyed.

Other signs (of many shapes and colors) indicate when you have crossed into another state.The designs on the sign are usually unique to the state  and are larger than normal. They are found at the exact border where the highway crosses into another state.

It is also should be mentioned that distances are not measured in meters on any road unless one is close to the Canadian border: one mile is roughly equal to 1.6 km.  Paying attention in particular to signs that indicate how far away something is is a worthy idea as exit ramps may appear sooner than anticipated!

Driving rules

If you are a first time visitor to the United States and are planning to rent a car during your visit, there are some driving rules and customs you might not be aware of. It is a good idea to drive defensively -- always be aware of nearby vehicles and anticipate possible movements by other drivers. Also, it is important to know that driving laws are set by each state and rules and speed limits may differ slightly when traveling across state borders. However, there are some general rules. Below are a few highlights:

  • Did you know that you are supposed to stop in BOTH directions for any school bus with flashing lights? School buses are often yellow in color and marked "school bus". When stopped for passengers, a sign will swing out from the side of the bus, or flashing lights will be activated, and it is illegal to pass the bus in either direction. This rule is strictly enforced in every state and the penalties can be severe, not to mention the risk of running a kid over if you don’t stop! If you live in the U.S. this is one of the most basic driving rules, but if you are a foreign traveler you may not be aware of it and that could get you into trouble.
  • At an intersection where all directions have a stop sign ("4-way stop"), drivers proceed in the order in which they enter the intersection after they have come to a complete stop.  If there is a tie, the vehicle on your right has right of way; or the driver traveling straight if someone is turning on a head-on approach. Remember, to actually bring your vehicle to a brief-but-complete halt for a few seconds at every stop sign.
  • In most states, when there are emergency vehicles of any kind on the side of the road, drivers must change lanes away - or - slow down markedly. Emergency vehicles may include law enforcement, fire, or even tow trucks depending upon the state.
  • A lower speed limit (often 20 mph) is strictly enforced near schools when there are signs that indicate when and at what hours this is the case. Watch for kids, because they are everywhere and unpredictible  Even away from school zones, go slowly (25 mph) in neighborhoods, and keep an eye open particularly in the morning (6-9:30 a.m.) and later in the afternoon (2:30-3:30 p.m.) Generally these are the times of day when children are going to school or leaving it to return home.
  • Another speed limit problem is how fast to go on major highways and interstates. The legal highway speed limit is posted on a sign and typically ranges from 55-75 miles per hour.  However, you will probably find that most people are exceeding the speed limit by 5 to 10 miles per hour. If you are driving with the speed of traffic, you generally won't be ticketed.  (If you're really worried about it, buy a radar detector once you're in the country -- they're legal in most states. Be aware though that they are not effective against lasers.) Generally, the leftmost lanes on roadways are considered to be the "fast" lanes and the rightmost lanes are considered to be the "slow" lanes; therefore, if you are on a multi-lane highway and find the traffic is passing you frequently on the right, you should probably move over a lane or two so as not to hold up traffic.  In some metropolitan areas (common in California) where there are three or more lanes the right most lane is used only for near term exiting (next two or three exits) in order to allow entering traffic more space to merge.  Entering traffic will then move left when practical.
  • In a city or suburban area, you will encounter bike lanes. Cars are not allowed to drive in a bike lane, although parking within a bike lane is permitted in some areas. Bicyclists are supposed to follow all the rules of the road, but most do not. Be alert for bicycles everywhere. Bike lanes will be marked on the roadway in white paint and may also be signposted. At very busy intersections, there may be green bike safety zones, where a car is not permitted to share the space with a bike, and must stay back.
  • Watch for special lanes on the freeway which have a diamond shape painted on the pavement.  Generally found in urban areas, these are designated  " car pool lanes", also called " HOV" or "high occupancy vehicle" and are meant to encourage use of a single vehicle by multiple passengers. These lanes should only be used by vehicles containing more than one person (check posted signs for minimum number of passengers). Fines are hefty for driving in these lanes without the correct number of passengers, so be aware of when these lanes appear and make sure you are in the correct lane at all times.
  • In most areas, cars already in a rotary, traffic circle, or roundabout have the right of way.
  • You must stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk.  Crosswalks are implied at four-way intersections. In most states, you must stop for any pedestrian who steps out anywhere in the road. Although this rule is often ignored by drivers, be on the lookout or you could injure or even kill a hpaless pedestrian. 
  • Making right turns on red signals after stopping (and ensuring the path is clear of pedestrians and oncoming traffic) is allowed in most states, unless there is a specific restriction posted at the intersection or the traffic lights show a red arrow in place of the standard red light.  Some areas will allow you to make a left turn on red going from a one-way street onto another one-way street.  (Note:  There is no "Right on Red" in New York City.) 
  • In urban areas, be careful not to block intersections (with or without traffic lights) when traffic backs up.  This is called "blocking the box" and if there is a police officer around, you will get a ticket because it can cause gridlock.
  • Exert great caution if you find yourself in a situation with an angry, "kooky" driver.  If someone is tailgaiting you, just let them pass. DO NOT purposely slow up, then go fast, then slow up again, to annoy them.  Let them in, if they need to get in. Otherwise, you may incite an incident of " road rage" -- which isn't safe for you, anyone in your car, or anyone around.
  • Most gasoline stations require you to pay before filling up -- even if no sign is displayed. In many areas it is payable by credit card – swipe the card, indicate the kind of gasoline you want, how much you want. and the pump will activate. Be aware, however, that some gas stations can and will put a temporary hold on up to $200 of your credit balance if you swipe at the pump; additionally, many pumps now ask for an American zip code. Paying inside can alleviate this problem in some cases, but the best thing to do is simply to pay in cash whenever possible. Some gas stations offer a small discount to cash payers, so it could be well worth your while to prepay with cash for that reason as well. If you are paying with a UK or Canadian Visa or American Express (This does not usually work with MasterCard) you can usually 'convert' your postcode into a ZIP code that will work at the pump. To do this, you should take any of the numbers out of your postcode and add 0s until you have a 5 digit number. For example, the UK postcode NR52 9CT would convert to 52900.
  • Plan your journey and know your next turn.  Although roads are generally well marked, heavy traffic conditions on multiple-lane roads can make advanced movements essential. Route numbers and final destination signs are different from the signs you may see in your home country. 
  • If you get lost, park in a shopping area, rest stop, or seek a restaurant.  You will usually see some signs to get you back on track.  People will usually be eager to help, although use common sense when stopping in deserted areas. especially at night.
  • Be aware of road signs that require you to put on the vehicle's headlights during daylight, such as when passing through a tunnel.  Some states require drivers to switch on headlights when weather requires the use of windshield wipers.
  • In the event of a flat tire or other road emergency, try to ease yourself to the right side of the road where there is a lane nobody is using - this is the shoulder. Put your  emergency blinkers on to warn other drivers.  Use a mobile phone and dial 911, or find a call box (located periodically along some major highways).
  • In a few rural areas (like Lancaster County, Pennsylvania or portions of the West)  one may encounter horses or horse and carriages. Slow down, keep your distance,  and do not honk the horn. Give the animal wide berth -- these are not like the horses policemen ride in cities and they can and do spook!
  • Some areas of the West will allow you to go off the road as *some* of these places are public land.  Please take the sign that says "four wheel drive only" very seriously: a typical sedan or minivan WILL NOT be able to withstand rocky trails, craggy surfaces, and icy conditions up a mountain pass or mesa.  If you wish to explore the thousands of miles of rugged terrain, it is best to rent a Jeep. Jeeps are available from car hire dealerships, and are designed for multiple types of terrain (the Jeep still gets heavy use from the United States Army), have the option of four wheel drive, and have a good  set of shock absorbers. ALWAYS respect "No Trespassing" signs and realize that just because you may be in open country, some land is private, not public! 
  • Americans do not use "flash to pass" or other headlight signaling.  Best case it may be viewed as the signaler has road rage....worst case it may incite road rage.  An exception would be for an oncoming car with high (distance) beams where a quick flash may remined them to dim, also, a flash of headlights is used to warn other vehicles that you are coming - when they are waiting at a side road on a highway, for example.
  • Parking along a road must be on the right side of the road - going with the traffic, not against.

More serious problems:

  • Wear a seatbelt and ensure children under 8 years have a car or booster seat. This is the golden rule of driving in the U.S. All states require seatbelts for drivers, and most states require them for passengers.  Most states also require a special child seat for children.  State requirements vary but many states require children under 8 years old (or under a certain height) to have a special child or booster seat. A policeman that stops you and finds you without your seatbelt fastened can ticket you and any of your passengers.  Babies are not allowed to be held in the arms or on the lap: it is considered too great a risk as baby could go flying through the windshield or smash against the seat if the car stops short.
  • If baby has been fussy, avoid problems and sit in the back with him as it avoids distracting the driver and makes it easier to care for him. (And remember, rest areas and little stops along the road are plentiful enough that you can stop and attend to him if it gets really bad or he has soiled himself.)
  • If you are stopped by a police officer, park ranger, state trooper, or highway patrolman: Pull over to the right side of the road as soon as it is safe to do so and get off the road as far as possible. Putting on the emergency flashers is a good idea, especially after dark. Turning into a side street (to get away from heavy traffic) and then stopping is allowed. The officer will park *behind* you in his or her car, then get out and walk up to you. He or she will first ask for your identification: (1) your driver's license, (2) your registration papers for the vehicle, and (3) proof that you have insurance to cover any potential liability from an accident.  If asked for those, hand the officer the license you have from home, your passport, and your rental agreement.   Also, if after dark, turn on the interior lighting so the officer can observe you more easily. These considerations for the officer's safety can mean the difference between a warning and a fine for minor infractions.
  • Babies and small children generally are not allowed to sit in the front seat in America; the passenger's side airbag can suffocate a child or baby if it deploys in an accident.  If you are traveling with a baby, see to it that he has a front facing car seat firmly buckled into the back seat behind the driver and then buckle him in snugly. If traveling with a child under twelve, know that some jurisdictions don't permit children under 12 to ride in the front passenger's  seat. (They are usually not tall or heavy enough to withstand the rigors of a car crash.)
  • It is a good idea to at least investigate getting a special harness to safely secure your dog if you are traveling with Rover or buy a pet carrier for him to ride in: leaving him unsecured in the backseat can be dangerous if there is an accident. If you are out with Rover, don't allow him to ride in the bed of a truck as is sometimes shown in some films: this is actually extremely dangerous and illegal in many states.
  • It should be obvious, but never drink alcoholic beverages and drive.  Make sure there is one in your party who is the "designated driver," who will not drink.  The courts are levying more and more severe penalties for drunken drivers.  Please don't be one of them.  Do not have (or keep) any open bottles of alcohol, even beer, in the car.  ** Exception to this rule: If you are in one of 11 states that has can and bottle recycling, you are allowed to carry empty alcohol bottles in your car on the way to the recycling center, but they should be in a bag of some sort.**  If you are pulled over by a police officer or state trooper, the open bottles will get you a ticket, and there is a good chance you shall be asked to get out of the car and take a breathalyzer test if the police officer has reason to suspect you are too drunk to drive.  (Blood-alcohol levels to be legally inebriated average around .08)
  • Some states prohibit smoking in a vehicle if their are children present in the car under a certain age, usually 18 years old.
  • In regards to drugs and driving, it is illegal to possess certain drugs let alone drive with them; if you carry them or are under their influence you will be arrested. You may face fines or jail time at the discretion of a judge and the severity of your punishment shall be dictated by the kind of drug you were found with: marijuana faces slightly lighter sentences, but heavier drugs like LSD, methamphetamine, heroin, or cocaine shall face much more severe punishment.  (Woe betide the person who is involved in a car accident with any of these in his system: he may be held responsible for the death or injury of any involved.) Remember, as a traveler you are under the jurisdiction of a foreign nation and if you break their rules you may not get the same treatment as you would at home!  Even certain legal drugs can affect your driving and should be used only with extreme caution.
  • If you do hit somebody or something, STOP. DO NOT CONTINUE ON.  You can be held at fault if it is proven you have damaged somebody's car or worse perpetrated a "hit and run".  If it is a person, get out of the car and find a way to call an ambulance and the police immediately if they appear to be hurt. Do your level best to help the injured.  Answer any questions the police ask, truthfully - they want to know what happened, how, and who's at fault. Pay close attention to the injured party's welfare: if the person dies charges of vehicular manslaughter may be levied, especially if malicious intent /negligence is proven. If it is simply a damaged car, exchange information with the other party and inform the rental dealership and police as soon as possible. They will want to know of it as it happens and if you have any questions they most likely shall oblige.

There are variations depending on the municipality you are visiting; you are strongly encouraged to review the traffic laws of each for your personal safety as well as that of other drivers.

Some driving terms used in the United States are different than those used in the United Kingdom. For example, in the US, "pavement:"  indicates the actually roadway; the term "sidewalk" is used for the pedestrian path next to the road. Others:

  • Interstate highway, expressway or freeway = motorway 
  • Interchange or exit = junction
  • Pass = overtake
  • Lane = carriageway
  • Marked crosswalk = zebra crossing (note that drivers typically do not stop for crossing pedestrians unless on a red or flashing red signal; however, it is wise to be cautious for any pedestrian that may cross in front of your vehicle but be careful about making sudden stops because the vehicle behind you may not expect it)
  • Rest stop = services (note that many "rest stops" have WCs, picnic tables, and vending machines but are otherwise unimproved, do not have petrol, shops, or restaurants, and may be deserted at times)
  • Traffic circle = roundabout
  • 9-1-1 = 999 (emergency number for police, fire, and medical assistance, including calls from mobile phones)


 

Natural Disasters and Phenomena

 

Earthquakes  - Earthquakes are quite rare.

You can check out the latest earthquakes in the U.S. in the past 7 days at this website: http://earthquake.usgs.gov/eqcenter/r...

If you're driving and notice there's an earthquake (it has to be quite big for a driver to notice), your car may feel like its tires have gone flat. Pull over, but away from anything that could fall on you.  Afterwards, drive much slower (so you can stop in time) and keep your eyes open on the road ahead of you--bridges may be out, bridge sections may be out, etc.  This is one of the biggest threats and endangers many people.  

As a general rule, there's always the juggle of speed and safety.  Try not to loiter around anything that could fall on you.  As all learn in driving school, always know your "way out."

Hurricanes - Check the local TV and radio stations frequently if there is a chance of a hurricane

Hurricanes affect the entire eastern seaboard of the U.S. and  the Gulf of Mexico,  The season lasts from late spring  through the late fall typically and if the lessons of Hurricane Katrina teach anything it is that it pays to pay attention to the National Weather Service and the Weather Channel during the months when hot, moist air is most plentiful.  There are some rules to abide by in the event of a hurricane:

  • The difference between a hurricane watch and a warning: A hurricane watch indicates a possible path of the storm, but a hurricane warning  indicates its probable path.  The latter is obviously the more dangerous classification and may  be the precursor to having to cut your vacation short.
  • Do not attempt to surf if a hurricane lies offshore. Even if it is not going to hit the area you are in, it still is a powerful enough storm to affect the tides and weather for many square kilometers around.  The waves can grow to be temptingly high indeed, but so can the risks involved with big riptides and undertows.  Please take this very seriously as it can save your life!
  • If you are staying in a rented  beach home on stilts or have rented an RV, LEAVE.  Neither can withstand the winds.
  • When the authorities tell you to evacuate, DO IT.   Take anything of value with you and unplug electrical appliances.  Depending on how close the storm is to hitting, you shall be directed to a shelter where the storm shall have little effect.  Observe the signs marked as evacuation routes. Ask questions of the authorities  and locals and they shall guide you to safety. Pay attention to the radio before, during, and after the storm. Staying behind if you are unaccustomed to high winds and flooding is a deadly mistake!!!
  • If the storm is far enough away it is wise to pack up and head as far inland as you can-hurricanes thrive over water and moist air but cannot sustain that power over land for long. (Think hundreds of miles.)
  • Do not expect plane routes  to run if the storm is upgraded from watch to warning. The FAA typically grounds all planes into and out of an area once it is certain where a hurricane will strike.  If you absolutely must leave, drive overland to an airport far away from where the storm will strike and try to get a plane there.
  • If you find yourself stuck in the storm, don't attempt to drive away-by then it is too late.  You cannot overcome winds that can pitch a car around like a ragdoll and you cannot outrun it; if you try you are exposing yourself to even greater peril.  Stay away from windows. If there is a basement available, use it. If not,  go to the inner-most closet or bathroom without windows and hide under heavy furniture. 

Tornadoes  

Tornadoes are rare in most of the eastern and western states, but all the midwestern states are prone to tornadoes. States in "Tornado Alley" (Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Illinois, South Dakota, Texas) have the highest frequency and the strongest storms. Tornadoes can form any time of the year, but the typical season runs from March to August.

Folklore also used to advise that if you are driving and a tornado is suspected or sighted, you should turn and drive at right angles to the storm. This advice is not recommended because tornadoes do not necessarily travel in straight lines; you cannot always tell the direction the storm is coming from; the road you turn onto may curve and head into the storm, rather than away from it; and there may be more than one tornado associated with a strong storm system, but you may not see it because visibility is diminished by heavy rain and wind-blown debris. The safest thing to do is go to a nearby sturdy building and go inside to an area on the lowest level, without windows: there is a reason why Aunt Em made a beeline for that cellar in The Wizard of Oz! If a sturdy building is not available, then get out of the vehicle and lay down in a low spot on the ground not subject to flooding, protecting the head and neck. Be sure there are no electrical wires or poles that can fall on you.

Severe  Thunderstorms

These are  most common in summer but can occur in any season. Though there are no specific warnings if you are indoors, there are some if you are outdoors:

                 Driving
 

  • If the thunderstorm is severe, p ull safely onto the shoulder of the road and stop, making sure you are away from any trees or other tall objects that could fall on the vehicle. Stay in the car and turn on the emergency flashers until the torrential rains subside. Heavy rains produced by thunderstorms can greatly reduce visibility. Vehicles will provide better protection from lightning than being out in the open. Emergency flashers will alert other drivers with limited visibility that you have stopped. Keep car windows closed.

  • If you feel it is safe to continue driving, slow down!  Even if it is not a monsoon outside your car window, you should not speed as you may risk hydroplaning. Keep *plenty of room* between yourself and the car in front of you and keep your headlights on.
  • Avoid contact with metal or conducting surfaces outside or inside the vehicle. Lightning that strikes nearby can travel through wet ground to your car. The steel frame of a hard-topped vehicle provides increased protection if you are not touching metal. Rubber tires provide no protection from lightning. Avoid contact with potential conductors to reduce your chance of being shocked. Although you may be injured if lightning strikes your car, you are much safer inside a vehicle than outside.

  • Avoid flooded roadways. Most flood fatalities are caused by people attempting to drive through water, or people playing in high water. The depth of water is not always obvious. The roadbed may be washed out under the water, and you could be stranded or trapped. Rapidly rising water may stall the engine, engulf the vehicle and its occupants, and sweep them away. Look out for flooding at highway dips, bridges, and low areas. Two feet of water will carry away most automobiles.


             Outdoors

  • Get out of the swimming pool if it starts thundering.  Where there is thunder, there shall be lightning. It is very unsafe to swim in a thunderstorm as the pool water can conduct electricity and kill you.
  • Don't seek shelter under trees.  Lightning likes to hit the tallest objects around and you shall find it rather unpleasant if a large oak tree falls on top of you. If at all possible, seek shelter indoors where it is dry.

Snow

Many places in the U.S . are subject to snowstorms, including the Northeast, most of the Midwest, much of the far West, Alaska, the Rocky Mountains and even the high desert. Here is what to do if you encounter one:

  • Drive slowly.  Keep *plenty of room* between you and the driver in front of you and keep your headlights on.
  • If the news says to stay off the roads, don't take it lightly - it means that the snow is going to be thick and getting stuck out on the road in a storm will be difficult as it may take time for somebody to get to you.
  • If it becomes too difficult to see, be sensible and pull off to the side until the storm subsides or at least lightens. If you think you've been caught in a blizzard, preserve the heat in your car and preserve the battery. Bundle up as warmly as you can and phone 911, telling them roughly where you are.  Sit tight,  stay with the car, and don't panic.
  • If the weather has been snowy in the city you've landed in, consider renting a car with four wheel drive. They are a bit better on roads after and during a snowstorm.
  • Some mountain areas will require tire chains when it is snowing and will not allow you to drive without chains.
  • Do not think that you are invincible if you have "four wheel drive". Do use it, but remember it only increases traction it is not like driving on dry pavement. Four wheel drive is mostly useless in icy conditions.

Millions of people visit the United States every year, and very few have any kind of problems with severe weather :-)