Tips/Etiquette on driving safely in the US
February 24, 2011 3:43 PM   Subscribe

First time US Driving Filter: I have been driving for about 5 years now, but not much in the US. I need tips on driving safely. Details inside.

For the past year, I have been driving in my city (which is about 30 miles from the downtown part) and haven't had any problems. I now have to drive 30 miles over 2 Interstate roads and get into downtown. This is scaring me since on a test drive a couple of days before, I made a mistake and ended up in the wrong lane!

1. On a major intersection where I have to take a left, the dividing double-yellow line is not clearly visible on the road, especially at night. How do you determine this? In Europe and Asia, road dividers are placed near intersections with a visible marker.

2. I have tried to draw a quick picture (here) of the roads in the mistake I made. Initially, I was in the lower right half of the pic (the brown rectangle is the car) and I took the left, thinking it was a free one way left (indicated by the light red arrow) and ended up in the wrong lane.

I was confused by the stop signs placed (red circles), thinking they would not be placed there unless it was the correct route. Should I have taken the bright red arrow route? There were no other signs of any sort.

3. I was on the second from right lane on the interstate and wanted to switch to the right most lane for the exit. But due to a steady stream of cars, I came almost to the exit, where I had to slow down. The cars behind me did not allow me to merge (I could swear that a couple of drivers accelerated too!). What is the correct process/etiquette?

4. In the downtown areas, when you reach a place that is not familiar, how do you find out where to park. I pulled on to the right most lane and slowed down to search for a metered parking spot, but cars behind me seemed to be impatient. How do you guys navigate?
posted by theobserver to Travel & Transportation (35 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Can you post the address of the intersection so we can look at it in Google Streetview?
posted by zippy at 3:54 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

1. Guess and pray. Really. There are poorly painted/marked intersections everywhere in the US. More often than not you can see either the double-yellow line or the solid white line to the right, and use those as guides. Some intersections have signs prior to the intersection to indicate the lane assignments. (Link here gives examples, R3-8, R3-8a, R3-8b)

2. Is it possible you could give us the intersection (street crossing and city). A google map would probably make it very easy to answer.

Likely the "free one-way left" (indicated by the light red arrow) was a quick cut off for traffic coming the other way to make a right turn. The two circle signs were probably "DO NOT ENTER" signs. In the US, virtually all stop signs are red octagon shaped signs to distinguish them from everything else. Do Not Enter are red circles with a white horizontal bar in the middle.

3. If you had your signal on to enter the right-hand lane, and no one let you in, you have to learn to "let yourself in." And yes, some people probably did accelerate, because they are assholes.

4. You did the correct thing here, IMO. Right-hand lane is the place to go slow and try to find a spot. Some people are impatient, ignore them.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 3:56 PM on February 24, 2011

Stop signs would only be at that place and facing you if it were the correct to drive. Are you sure they were stop signs?

If the route was not correct, the only signs facing you should be "do not enter" or "wrong way" signs.
posted by zippy at 3:56 PM on February 24, 2011

You might think about taking one or two "refresher" driving lessons with a driving instructor, just to talk through this stuff and get tips about how to be a more intuitive driver in the US. It will not be hugely expensive.

Okay, here are my thoughts on your questions:

1. You just have to know. Take heart; your state or municipality will probably renew the road lines in spring. THIS OFFER MAY NOT APPLY IN CALIFORNIA OR WISCONSIN

2.Based on your diagram (which is a mite confusing, but maybe the intersection is equally confusing), you may be supposed to take a left to the left of the island, then proceed across the left lane into the right lane (i.e., the travel lane going in the direction you're going). There are a lot of intersections like this.

But I have two questions: Is the street that you show the car on a one-way street, or did you have to turn across traffic going in the opposite direction to make the left turn around the island? Because if so, it seems like the red-arrow route might be better and safer anyway.

Is the little street that you went down a one-way street? Is there any way that any traffic could originate on that street (as in, even one house or business)? Because it's possible that everyone coming down the street on which you show the car is supposed to take the red arrow route, and the stop signs on the little street are meant solely for traffic originating on the little street.

It wouldn't have been intuitive to me to turn to the left of the island rather than taking the left directly onto the intersection, unless there were signs in the island indicating that that was what to do. In general, turning across oncoming traffic is counter-intuitive enough for US drivers that when that is the preferred route, it's clearly marked. But not always.

3. Next time, you'll have to merge right earlier. Different highways are going to vary in their etiquettes on this. The correct process is to put your right directional on and wait for a break in traffic.

4. You pull into the right-hand lane, put your right directional signal on, and annoy the people behind you. Yes, they will be annoyed, but that's not because you're doing it wrong; that's because it's annoying to be behind someone who's looking for parking.

That said, when I am going somewhere new, I look on Google Street View to see where parking is in advance.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:01 PM on February 24, 2011

And, yeah, I'm assuming that you just had a brain-o and wrote "circle" when you meant "octagon". If you meant "circle" then you were going the wrong way.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:02 PM on February 24, 2011

I was confused by the stop signs placed (red circles)

Do you mean the signs were red circles; or are simply indicating the symbol you used on your map to show the (octangular) stop signs used in America?

I agree with Zippy, can you post the address and we'll take a look on Google?

I was on the second from right lane on the interstate and wanted to switch to the right most lane for the exit. But due to a steady stream of cars, I came almost to the exit, where I had to slow down. The cars behind me did not allow me to merge (I could swear that a couple of drivers accelerated too!). What is the correct process/etiquette?

Highway driving is unforgiving if you don't know your route in advance. Study your path ahead of time so that you can get over early. But you do need to be assertive; other drives are often not paying enough attention to know you want to get over.

On a major intersection where I have to take a left, the dividing double-yellow line is not clearly visible on the road, especially at night.

Road/road marking quality varies considerably from state to state and even within states. It sucks.
posted by spaltavian at 4:06 PM on February 24, 2011

1. I know my routes and always get into the correct lane for the next turn off or whatever as soon as possible. I too hate when folks try to sneak into a lane, but I'm usually the sole person that yields and makes room. I just try not to be them sneaking in at the last minute.

2. People are rude when they drive here. I compensate by getting into the correct lane and not holding up traffic whenever possible. I will drive around the block and pass up a parking space when there is too much traffic behind me.

3. Maybe take a defensive driving course? I always assume everyone else on the road is drunk, high, and/or talking on their cell phone and therefore they are not paying attention to me. I drive according to this model.

4. When people tailgate me and I'm going fast in the left lane... I chuck on my hazards. I know. But fuck them! When they back off, I turn off the hazards. If they do it again, I turn the hazards back on. My attitude is they're free to pass me or not tailgate me when I am already driving slightly above the speed limit and with the rate of other (fast) traffic.

5. USE YOUR BLINKERS CORRECTLY. This means signaling for 20 or 30 seconds and then making a lane change, then turning off the signal for 20 or 30 seconds, then turning the signal back on to do an additional lane change. Not that anyone is looking at your signals most of the time, but using them correctly does help at least some of the time.

6. My husband is from Egypt where (I hear) there are no real driving rules. Took me a year to make him a better driver in the US. If you are considerate, you will cause less hassle on the road and avoid accidents. If this means letting some wise-ass cut you off or missing an exit, than so be it. That's better than being "right" but getting into an accident!

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 4:06 PM on February 24, 2011

Just in case you're from a country where this is different:

When you make a left across traffic in the U.S., unless you have a green arrow (a "protected left"), you have to wait until all oncoming traffic has cleared. One of my roommates from abroad was from a country where all the LEFT-TURNING TRAFFIC GOES FIRST and she about gave me a heart attack (and a trip to the ER for that matter) the first time she tried to make a left in the U.S.

I also think the idea about a driving instructor is a good one, or driving with an experienced US friend who can help you iron out the kinks/differences.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:08 PM on February 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

"always get into the correct lane for the next turn off or whatever as soon as possible."
This is very good advice!
posted by lungtaworld at 4:15 PM on February 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Both of your issues (how to make sure you're in the right lane to make a turn, how to park in an urban setting) are a matter of guesswork in my experience. Educated guesswork, of course, but guesswork none the less.

It has definitely happened to me, driving in New York City, that I have misunderstood what lane I was supposed to be in, or misjudged how much time I had to make a lane change, and ended up in a tight spot (holding up people behind me, needing to be let in by cars in another lane, missing my turn, etc). You just sort of have to be observant and intuitive, and hope that the drivers around you are vaguely charitable individuals. Luckily, this happens to everyone at least once. As long as you're not cutting people off or engaging in risky behavior because you simply refuse to miss your turn or wait a second for a lane to clear, you're probably OK.

As for parking, my strategy in a dense urban area where I know parking will be difficult (the Upper West Side of Manhattan, for example) is to start looking for a spot before I reach my destination. There's no point in rolling up at the restaurant, being all, "hey, that's where we're going to eat in half an hour once I can find a place to park this stupid machine," and then wasting time looking for a spot. If your destination is, say, on the corner of W. 83rd and Amsterdam, you should start scouting out side streets somewhere in the upper seventies, and just keep doing it until you find a spot. From there, you can walk to 83rd and Amsterdam. Yes, it's possible that you might have found a closer spot if you'd kept going, or searched in the other direction, or whatever - you have to let go of that kind of thinking if you want to drive in the city and not have a stroke.
posted by Sara C. at 4:18 PM on February 24, 2011

Oh, and don't worry - cars are impatient when you're trolling for a parking spot and they want to zip on through. C'est la vie. If they were so impatient to move faster, why are they driving down this random side street? Unless their car is on fire or you can see an obviously in labor woman in the car, just let 'em be impatient.
posted by Sara C. at 4:20 PM on February 24, 2011

I've noticed that a lot of it has to do with familiarity of the route/intersections/roads/destination. I've made similar mistakes when I moved to this town because I wasn't familiar that the left lane ends in three blocks, this two way turns into a one-way, that exit isn't clearly marked. But after making those mistakes I now know better and don't make them anymore.

So now when I see some bonehead trying to do some bonehead maneuver, I give him/her the benefit of the doubt and assume it's their first time doing that particular thing at that particular place.
posted by rhapsodie at 4:26 PM on February 24, 2011

Oh, forgot to mention that you should take into consideration your learning style when learning to drive in a new city. I'm primarily a visual learner, so I learned about intersections and routes and possible parking locations by studying Google Maps and by paying close attention when someone else drives.
posted by rhapsodie at 4:29 PM on February 24, 2011

Beyond the Road Rules
Chapter 3 ;)

When trying to merge & no one is letting you in, you can try a very light tap on the horn while matching speed at a likely looking insertion point. Generally this provides an opportunity to make eye contact with the other driver & maybe some hand gestures --I recommend something diplomatic at this point. Most people, once trapped into eye-contact, will let you in. It is not so much "ettiquet" as forcing the other person, for 3 seconds, to acknowledge the needs of another human being.

If even that doesn't work, it becomes a game of "chicken" where you slowly invade the other car's 'personal space' and hope that someone decides to be reasonable. No one wants a crash, because it's a time-consuming nuisance to stop & check for scratches/get insurance information even when no one is hurt & the cops aren't called. Use your judgement. Sometimes it's better to let the other guy win, slow down a litt more, and check the next car's determination. By that time, the car behind the asshole has figured out you have a problem & may take pity on you.
posted by Ys at 5:32 PM on February 24, 2011

In the U.S., it helps to drive smoothly and decisively. When you drive decisively, other drivers can predict your actions and path more reliably; your intent and perhaps even your goals become much clearer when your driving inputs to your own vehicle are sure and well coordinated, and your signals are applied correctly and in appropriate time.

But for many people, it is nearly impossible to act decisively when they are confused, fearful, or simply unsure of route; they slow down, below average traffic speed, they signal very early, they wait excessively for lanes to "clear" before making lane changes, and they check and re-check lane clearance too frequently, often all while juggling maps, or lists of Google directions. They are accidents on wheels, making everyone about them worse, more nervous drivers, as a result of their own indecisiveness.

If you drive with confidence, decisively, the worst that is likely to happen is that your navigational mistakes will send you astray (assuming of course that you aren't mixing up "No Entry" signs with "STOP" signs, or plowing obliviously down one-way streets the wrong way). You can easily recover your bearings, re-plot a new route to your destination, and at the worst, arrive a little later than you might have planned. But if you drive indecisively, you can and probably will, contribute to causing a wreck.

Accelerate into new lanes, after signalling appropriately, and checking for minimal 2 car opening; if you are accelerating as you change, anyone behind your entry point gains the benefit of your acceleration against any braking he may need to give you, in creating an opening. More important, everyone in lane behind the driver giving way to you gains, because any braking your lane change does create, will be a lot less violent, and of shorter duration, than harder braking needed to avoid you slowing down as you change lanes.

Don't signal more than 5 seconds before making a change in direction. If you leave your blinker on for 15, 30, or more seconds, you aren't giving people more "warning" of your intention, you're demonstrating that you've forgotten your blinker is on. Better to shut it off again for a few seconds, if you haven't acted on it within 5 seconds, and then re-signal and make your move directly as a result, within the new 5 second time limit. That way, your chain of intention/signaling/action remains clear and decisive.

Be smooth and be clear about what you're doing, and you help other drivers about you react appropriately, creating space in traffic for your necessary maneuvers. Be decisive at all times, even when executing what you think might be navigational mistakes.
posted by paulsc at 5:55 PM on February 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

I find that having a GPS makes a world of difference to me. I know that even if I miss my exit, I won't find myself hopelessly lost in a sketchy neighborhood and having to depend on the knowledge, kindness and communicative ability of strangers. Being lost at night, in a strange city, and not being able to find anyone who knows quite how to get to the freeway is a world of suck. GPS is a godsend; the fact that I can have the directions spoken to me while I keep my hands on the wheel and eyes on the road is another godsend.

A little thing, but it makes a big difference to me especially if I'm in an unfamiliar neighborhood and/or don't have much time to waste: Keep a bottle of water and some munchies handy in the car, and go to the bathroom before you leave the house (or office). It's no fun to be parched with thirst, woozy with hunger, or HAVE TO PEE NOW OR I'LL WET MYSELF - and have to take the time and trouble to track down a restroom or Quickie Mart, or not be able to focus because of how hungry you are or how your bladder is going to burst. Yes, a GPS will tell you where to find one, but it won't vouch for the safety or quality.

The more you can take care of the little things, and the navigation, the more you'll be able to focus on your driving and your safety.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 6:18 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hint: intersections like that are never going to make you cross opposing traffic twice like that. That would only exist if there are lights and arrows telling you what to do. If it looks confusing, think about what drivers going in other directions would try to use it for. If they would be using it for right turns, they probably won't be expecting you to be there.

You only ever cross the yellow line to make a turn into a driveway (like for a store or something- you are leaving that street). If it is a roadway, the yellow line(s) will disappear to allow you to make the turn. White dashed lines mean the other lanes are going the same direction, yellow dashed lines mean traffic on the other side is oncoming. Do not cross the dashed yellow line except to pass, and only when it is safe. Solid yellow means do not cross, even to pass.

Solid white line means stay in your lane.

If you come up on an invisible turning lane, look at oncoming traffic. If there are two lanes oncoming, make sure you leave two lanes for them to get into before stopping for your turn.

If you get confused, pull out of traffic and regain your bearings. If you get confused and don't know where to turn, stay with traffic and turn around later.


1- Don't hit anything.
2- Don't get hit by anything.
3- Don't get in anyone else's way.
4- Navigation.

In what world do left turns get the right of way over oncoming traffic???! That is insane. Are you sure this person didn't assume there was a green arrow when there wasn't?
posted by gjc at 8:33 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

5. USE YOUR BLINKERS CORRECTLY. This means signaling for 20 or 30 seconds and then making a lane change, then turning off the signal for 20 or 30 seconds, then turning the signal back on to do an additional lane change. Not that anyone is looking at your signals most of the time, but using them correctly does help at least some of the time.


The "time" limit for signals is distance, not time. 30 seconds at 60 mph is HALF A MILE. Incorrect. Look it up for your state, but it is likely 100, 200 or 500 feet.
posted by gjc at 8:37 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, when making turns, you either have the right of way, or you don't. It is NOBODY'S job to let you in or get out of your way.

This also means that when turning, unless you are in a double turn lane situation, you are free to choose whichever lane you want. Because you have the right of way. If you *aren't* free to choose any lane because other cars are there, you really probably should not be making that turn.
posted by gjc at 8:42 PM on February 24, 2011

"In what world do left turns get the right of way over oncoming traffic???! That is insane"

At me? That's what my roommate told me. She was very upset and shaken by the experience because she assumed that the oncoming traffic would politely wait their turn until after she'd made her turn. And really, at US intersections, the "protected left" green arrow goes before anything else; I gathered this was the same system but without a formalized left arrow system; light turns green, everyone waiting in line to go left just GOES; once oncoming traffic is flowing, new lefties have to wait through the light cycle. She swore up and down this was more efficient.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:07 PM on February 24, 2011

Thanks for all the info and kind words of support. I usually am very decisive while driving, but unfamiliarity with the system was making me nervous and wrecked my confidence after the mistake!

To answer some questions about #2 of my original post, there was clearly a stop sign (*with the words STOP*). While it is not visible here, I found the intersection on Google maps that I hurriedly drew a picture of.

I find, to my relief, that I entered the correct way (the opposite side is marked no entry), but I didn't cut across the road to enter the correct lane. I can be excused to some extent, since with a free left, I thought it was a one-way street (as in Europe) AND since there was a one-way street sign, but it was apparently two way (?). Thanks to a nice guy behind, who honked to let me know I was in the wrong lane and gave me space to move back, I corrected myself quickly, but gave me and my wife a minor heart attack in the process!

Here is one pic and the other from a different perspective.

In the first picture, I was coming in the direction marked by the arrow and the car coming in, while in the second picture, you can see the one-way signs on the left and the double yellow lane dividers ahead.

On replay, I realize that I was concentrating more on what my GPS had to say than looking at the road! Stupid of me, I guess!
posted by theobserver at 10:20 PM on February 24, 2011

Yeah, that one-way sign applies just to the little cut-across road there, the one that goes across the median/dividing strip -- it's telling people coming from the direction that you were going towards that they can't turn right onto that roadlet.
posted by redfoxtail at 10:39 PM on February 24, 2011

redfoxtail: If you look at the second picture, that also has a one-way street sign facing towards the direction I was going.

Are these kinds of intersections common here? Or was it a one-off case. Asking so that I keep an out for such things in the future.
posted by theobserver at 10:49 PM on February 24, 2011

I am looking at the second picture -- it looks to me like the signs are on the cut-across only, which is one way. But in the first picture I can see that one of those one-way signs is closer to the intersection with the two-way street than it really should be. If I were queen of road signs, I'd have made that one a Do Not Enter Sign (facing the oncoming traffic that shouldn't turn across the median there). Am I right in thinking that the street you were on at first, the one over on the left side of the screen in your second picture, is also one-way?

This does like a slightly unusual set-up. More often, little roads that cut across a median like that, especially ones that are angled like this one is, are indeed turn-around lanes to take you from one (one-way) side of a divided highway to another (one way the other way) -- so, the situation you had been expecting.
posted by redfoxtail at 11:11 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

redfoxtail: Am I right in thinking that the street you were on at first, the one over on the left side of the screen in your second picture, is also one-way?

Yes, there was just one lane without any lane dividers. A free left lane that ends up cutting across the road on the other end was definitely not what I was expecting. That is the crux of the problem.

I think I have to get more experience and start to be more assertive while driving, as others have mentioned.
posted by theobserver at 11:19 PM on February 24, 2011

That sort of intersection is, in my experience, fairly uncommon. I've lived in three states and driven through most others, and I can count on one hand the number of times I've run into that sort of setup--the vast majority of left turn lanes will not, in fact, dump you into oncoming traffic.

Regarding your initial question about what to do when you can't see the yellow line, the correct answer is just stay to the right. Staying to the far right will almost never be wrong--pretty much the only time this can bite you in the ass is if the right lane turns into a turning-only or exit-only lane, but if that happens, there'll be signs warning you.
posted by MeghanC at 11:24 PM on February 24, 2011

Yeah, this is an odd intersection. You have three cues not to pull into the far left (oncoming traffic) lane when you pull forward from the stop sign.

1) To turn into the leftmost lane would require you to make a sharper turn than you are already making.

2) The yellow line running down the street you are merging onto indicated two-way traffic.

3) The absence of a "<>
That said, this is not a well designed or marked intersection.
posted by zippy at 1:24 AM on February 25, 2011

Sorry, HTML ate my bitchin' <=ONE WAY= sign.
posted by zippy at 1:26 AM on February 25, 2011

Yeah, that intersection is poorly designed. Rather than curving toward the left, it should have been built at a right angle to the road it was intersecting, which would have made it more obvious what you were supposed to do. I tracked down where this intersection is, and it's actually an off-ramp from the interstate, not just two regular roads intersecting, so I suppose it can be forgiven for being slightly odd. I won't post a link here since you seem to have avoided disclosing the location yourself, but I have to admit I probably would have been momentarily confused by it myself. The only real clue is the broken (dashed) double-yellow line down the middle of the intersected road indicating that you need to cross to the rightmost lane. But as you said, those lines can sometimes be hard to see at night.
posted by Nothlit at 5:28 AM on February 25, 2011

Eyebrows- Didn't mean you were insane, I meant the country that did that, or the person who misunderstood reality that poorly.

It just goes against common sense- people going along minding their own business have to be prepared to stop when they come upon someone trying to make a left?

Protected left does go before everyone else (most times), but the difference is that oncoming traffic still has a red light.
posted by gjc at 6:20 AM on February 25, 2011

Nothlit: I had to trace down my route (where I missed a fork and took the I-25 North instead of the I-25 South. The GPS then computed the alternative and I took the 211 Exit. From this, I arrived at this intersection - the address that Google showed me again did not turn up when I tried a fresh search with it. Also, I took the screenshots so that I could mark the road I was taking. You can attribute my not disclosing the location to these aspects rather than wanting to conceal the location.

But that was a very fine piece of Google-fu from you!

Zippy: I get it now, but as I said I wasn't expecting this kind of intersection and there was a one-way street sign for the roadlet (which I thought indicated the road ahead). But your advice makes sense.
posted by theobserver at 6:41 AM on February 25, 2011

theobserver, you keep talking about a "free left." This isn't a concept in US traffic planning or road design, so it seems like you're reading more into this configuration of roads than is actually intended by the people who laid them out, or understood by the people driving on them.

For instance, you wrote: I can be excused to some extent, since with a free left, I thought it was a one-way street (as in Europe).

We just don't have any "free left" conventions here. I know it's hard to put one country's driving conventions out of your mind while driving in another country, but if you can do that it will help you navigate US intersections.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:58 AM on February 25, 2011

Sidhedevil: I was using that term for a situation where your turn (either left or right) isn't guided by a traffic signal and you are free to turn at any time AND with a separation from the main lanes by a traffic island (watching for pedestrians, of course). As you said, that term might have a different connotation here.

Out of curiosity, what do you call them over here?
posted by theobserver at 8:04 AM on February 25, 2011

I don't personally have a special term for that exact configuration, I don't think.

But, as a side note, I've just been introduced to a term that you might find interesting. It's for the kind of road configuration that you thought you were facing: Michigan Left. The fact that there is a name and even a Wikipedia page for it should make you feel better about having expected your road to be arranged this way.

And now you (and I!) know that US driving expects you to keep a much closer eye on the type and color of lines on the road than European and Asian driving does. Unfortunate, given the possibilities for snow, debris, and darkness, but there it is.
posted by redfoxtail at 9:30 AM on February 25, 2011

Out of curiosity, what do you call them over here?

It doesn't have a name, because it's just a turn with an island in it. There aren't any special rules for it.

The "Michigan left" (where special off-ramps are set up to reverse direction) is also called a "jug handle" here in New England, but that's something different from the intersection you depicted.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:57 PM on February 25, 2011

« Older Hiking in Israel   |   Go Team! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.