Driving and Local Transportation
Driving in the U.S.
"You can always tell when a car is being driven by a foreign student," said a Midwestern chief of police. "You don't have to be able to see the driver. They just don't drive the same way we do."
Foreigners' driving is noticeable anywhere. Driving entails not just the mechanical manipulations of the car--starting the engine, shifting gears, steering--but customary styles of driving as well. Driving customs vary from place to place, so foreigners' driving is often different from that of the natives.
Driving customs in America differ from one part of the country to another. In Pittsburgh, for example, a driver waiting at a red traffic light and wanting to turn left will race across the intersection in front of the oncoming cars just as the light turns green. Denver drivers will not do that; instead, they will wait until the oncoming traffic has passed and then they will make the left turn.
While there are marked regional differences in American driver behavior, there are some commonalities that foreign visitors who drive in the States will want to know about. After giving some general information about cars and driving in the United States, we will consider traffic laws, attitudes toward driving, and driving aids.
The ratio of motor vehicles to people in the United States is the highest in the world. Public transportation is generally not as accessible as it is in many other countries, and Americans tend to be too independent-minded to use common carriers anyway, so there are large numbers of cars. In 1985, 170,237,000 motor vehicles were licensed to operate in the United States. In many states the number of registered vehicles exceeded the number of licensed drivers.
Most Americans who have reached the age at which they can legally drive (the age is 16 in most states) have a driver's license. Females are as likely to drive as males.
Automobile accidents are not the grave social problem they are in some other countries, but they are still considered serious. In 1982 the rate at which fatal auto accidents occurred was 2.9 per 100 million vehicle miles driven, the lowest rate among countries for which data were available. By comparison, the rate was 3.4 in Finland and the United Kingdom, 4.8 in Japan, and 10.2 in Spain. A significant percentage of U.S. auto accidents involves drivers who have consumed enough alcohol to impair their judgment and reflexes. "Drunk driving" is considered a serious highway safety problem.
The U.S. road system is quite complex. State, county, and municipal authorities have responsibility for building, maintaining, and patrolling (with police) different highways and roads. Traffic laws vary somewhat from one jurisdiction to another, but there is a general uniformity with respect to road signs, traffic lights, and the basic aspects of traffic engineering. (Some road signs are uniquely American; international signs are slowly being introduced.) Highways are kept as straight as possible. Except in the old cities on the East Coast, streets are generally laid out in a grid pattern unless geographical features make it difficult or impossible to adhere to that arrangement. Systems for naming and numbering streets vary.
Generally, American traffic laws cover the same subjects that traffic laws elsewhere cover: who can legally drive, minimum and maximum speeds, turning, parking, entering moving traffic, responding to emergency vehicles, vehicle maintenance, and so on. Drivers' licenses are issued by the separate states, usually through offices housed in county government buildings, such as the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles).
Traffic laws are enforced by state police on some roads, county sheriff's officers on others, and municipal police on still others. Police devote a significant portion of their time and effort to enforcing traffic laws. They issue what are called "traffic tickets, " or simply "tickets," to violators. Drivers who get tickets normally have to pay a fine. In addition, most states have a "point system" whereby drivers are given points for each traffic offense. Drivers who accumulate a specified number of points will lose their driving privileges for a certain period of time.
Serious or repeat traffic violations can result in incarceration.
Trucks, motorcycles, and bicycles--all of which are wheeled vehicles that use the roads--are subject to traffic laws just as automobiles are.
Attitudes About Driving
Drivers' attitudes probably explain more of their behavior on the road than do the traffic laws. Foreigners driving in the U.S. need to know what the traffic laws say, but they will also want to understand the ideas that govern American drivers' behavior.
Attitudes toward traffic laws
Generally, Americans expect traffic laws to be enforced. They operate on the assumption that, at any time, a police officer might apprehend them if they violate the law. In general, American drivers take traffic laws seriously. A Southeast Asian high school teacher, in the States for advanced studies, learned how seriously when he tried to get an American driver's license. He failed the driving test twice before finally passing it. "They're so picky," he said of the driver's license examiners. "They kept saying I was breaking the laws." He had not stopped at some stop signs or given the required signals to indicate his intention to turn. In his own country such failures were quite acceptable.
Attitudes toward other drivers
Except for those--and there are many--who are looked down upon for being "aggressive" or "discourteous," American drivers tend to cooperate with each other. They are not likely to be constantly competing to see who can get the farthest the fastest. If they see another driver trying to enter the flow of traffic, for example, they are likely to move over (if there is a lane for doing so) or even slow down or stop (if they are not going too fast) to allow the other driver to enter. If they see that another driver wishes to change lanes in front of them, they are likely to allow it.
The ideal is the "courteous driver," who pays attention to other drivers and cooperates with them in what is conceived as a joint effort to keep the roads safe for everyone. Like other ideals, this one is violated. But it is the ideal nonetheless.
At the same time there is constant awareness of the concept of "right-of-way." The traffic laws try to make clear which driver has the right-of-way in each possible driving situation. For example, drivers going straight have the right-of-way over those heading in the opposite direction and wishing to turn left. Drivers without the right-of-way are expected to yield to those who have it.
Attitudes toward driving safety
Americans generally assume that individual drivers are responsible for their own safety and that of other drivers around them. Traffic accidents are usually considered to result from carelessness or mechanical failure, and not from "fate," "God's will," or other forces beyond human control. But "accidents do happen," the Americans will say, referring to the fact that an accident can occur through a random configuration of circumstances or as a result of factors that drivers could not reasonably be expected to foresee.
Attitudes toward pedestrians
Pedestrians are viewed as people whose wishes and apparent intentions deserve as much respect as those of other drivers.
Driving in the U.S. reading taken from American Ways, Gary Althen, 1988
Other Sources of Information
Need to learn how to drive? See the search engine at http://www.localeyes.com and type in driving schools for listings in U.S. cities.
The American Automobile Association (AAA) offers maps, insurance, travel planning, and road-emergency services to members. Visit http://www.aaahv.com for more details.
Need public transportation around town? Go to http://www.cdta.org for the the New York Capital Region bus schedules.
Want to take a day trip to Boston or New York City? Check out http://www.yankeetrails.com for one-day bus excursions to nearby cities. Or check out local train service at http://www.amtrak.com for other options.
For more information on buying cars, car insurance, and driving in the U.S., go to http://www.edupass.com (see Living in the USA, then go to Transportation).