Is there a single US Highway Code?
April 25, 2007 2:45 PM   Subscribe

Is there a US-wide equivalent to the Highway Code?

In the UK, we have The Highway Code, a collection of laws, advice and best practice for all road users, which mainly functions as a written basis for learning to drive (I know I haven't looked at one for a while).

Anyway, my question: does the US have a similar document, or are driving laws too diverse in the US for this to be feasible? Do any individual states issue their own?

I'm asking this question from the point of view of a European driver (10+ years) who may end up having to start from scratch to earn a US (probably Texas) licence...
posted by Nice Guy Mike to Law & Government (18 answers total)
The short answer is no, there is no uniform traffic law across the US, it's a state-by-state issue, at least for things like licensing, required safety equipment, default rules (e.g., right-on-red or not), etc. That said, there is a remarkable degree of consistency in terms of signage and other road markings. I suspect that, while the technical law differs, there is some sort of DOT guide that at least covers "advice" and "best practices."

However, if you already know the jurisdiction where you'll be licensed, or as soon as you find out for sure, it's probably easiest to get the "zero to driver" guide straight from the state dep't of transportation or registry of motor vehicles or whatever. Looks like this is the Texas one.
posted by rkent at 2:58 PM on April 25, 2007

Each state is different. New York State publishes a little book much like the Highway code, which can be viewed on their website. New York does not allow a UK license to be converted into an Americon one. There is an onerous ordeal of classroom lessons and tests that is necessary. Some things are done differently here - "Mirror-Signal-Manoeuvre" is not the correct mantra here.
Other states do (or previously did) allow conversion of a UK to a State license - California is or was one such.

On Preview - I just read the "probably Texas" bit – here is the place to look. "DMV" plus the state name is the Google term to use when you know where you are going.
posted by nowonmai at 3:10 PM on April 25, 2007

In Texas, the Driver Handbook linked from this page is the closest thing.
posted by grouse at 3:13 PM on April 25, 2007 is not the site you want. For Texas, you'll want the official Texas Department of Transportation.
posted by muddgirl at 3:13 PM on April 25, 2007

That's not right, either. It's the Texas Department of Public Safety.
posted by muddgirl at 3:14 PM on April 25, 2007

The link provided by nowonmai is to a commercial site. Driver's licenses in Texas are issued by the Department of Public Safety, and there is no DMV (which seems to be somewhat anomalous).
posted by grouse at 3:15 PM on April 25, 2007

As others have mentioned, there is no uniform (or even close to it) driving code in the US. Some rules are foisted upon the states by the federal government (like right on red, which is now almost universally allowed except where signed otherwise, excluding a few holdout cities) through the carrot of federal highway funding.

There is a document, called the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which details requirements for signage and road markings. Some states have their own version of the manual that differ slightly or substantially from the federal document. States are generally required (by the aforementioned funding) to comply with the MUTCD. Most states through law or administrative rule require adherence to the MUTCD or their state equivalent by their highway department and cities.
posted by wierdo at 3:19 PM on April 25, 2007

Oh, and in response to grouse and muddgirl (I should learn to preview more often), in most states the DOT (or Arkansas it's called the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department) is responsible for building and maintaining state and federal highways (federal highways are numbered by the AAHSTO, but they are maintained by the states. They usually get some federal funds to help defray the cost), while some other department, DMV in many states, but not by any means all, is responsible for licensing drivers and sometimes vehicles.

In Arkansas, the licensing entity is the Department of Finance and Administration. They also implement the tax code, among other things. (commonly called the Revenue Department) In Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Tax Commission licenses vehicles, while the Department of Public Safety licenses drivers.

In short, it's an incredibly fragmented system, with only minimal standards for licensing drivers.

For what it's worth, the driving laws are generally similar throughout the country, but there are little differences all over the place. In some states, traffic tickets are not heard in a "real" court. In others (like Arkansas), they are first heard by municipal court, but with the right of a de novo trial in a "real" court should the driver lose.

Generally speaking, though, the major stuff is all pretty much the same, what equipment the car must (or mustn't) have, the colors of lights, that sort of thing.

All that said, enforcement of most minor (and some IMO major) infractions are hardly if at all enforced. Few police officers will ticket you for failing to signal a turn or lane change, for example.
posted by wierdo at 3:32 PM on April 25, 2007

If this clarifies anything, for Texas TXDOT generally designs and builds roads, while the DPS generally does enforcement and licensing. To muddy the waters further, Texas vehicle registrations are handled by local county tax assessor-collectors acting on behalf of the state. [I'm still waiting for County B to acknowledge that I moved here from County G a couple of months ago]

More broadly, although states have primary responsibility for driving laws, procedures, speed limits, signage, etc, the federal government does use the carrot-and-stick approach to try to get states to harmonize, more or less. Some years back, the Feds threatened to withhold transportation subsidies to states that did not adopt self-belt laws. Similar efforts were applied to the 55mph speed limit in the 70s and to drunk-driving laws in the 80s. You'll still see some variance from state to state, but the federal influence is as large as the power of the purse.
posted by Robert Angelo at 3:55 PM on April 25, 2007

The reason for this is the Tenth Amendment.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:58 PM on April 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

The Texas Department of Public Safety website (to which rkent and muddgirl link) has a PDF of the Texas Drivers Handbook here.
posted by ericb at 4:15 PM on April 25, 2007

BTW -- from the Texas Drivers Handbook:
"Nonresidents (at least 18 years of age) may drive any vehicle in Texas if they are legally licensed to drive such a vehicle in their home state or country, and their home state or country grants like recognition to citizens of Texas."
posted by ericb at 4:20 PM on April 25, 2007

The Texas Department of Public Safety website (to which rkent and muddgirl link) has a PDF of the Texas Drivers Handbook here.

Also the one to which I linked when I suggested the very same handbook.

posted by grouse at 4:33 PM on April 25, 2007

Ah, ya', that's the ticket -- and to which grouse linked! ;-)
posted by ericb at 4:36 PM on April 25, 2007

The reason for this is the Tenth Amendment.

More like the narrow interpretation of the commerce clause. But hey - tomato, tomahto. In any case, there is no real equivalent in British constitutionalism.
posted by rkent at 4:41 PM on April 25, 2007

Hmm, I'm amazed that no one has mentioned the Uniform Vehicle Code. It is exactly what it sounds like--a model vehicle code designed to foster uniformity in local and state traffic laws around the country. It's pretty much the closest thing we have to a national standard for traffic laws.

It doesn't have any force of law at all but it has been quite influential. Many state vehicles codes were essentially wholesale adoptions of the Uniform Vehicle Code at one time or another. For instance Kansas follows UVC pretty closely.

The UVC is maintained by the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Laws and Ordinances (NCUTLO).

Incidentally, the situation is even worse than someone described it above--in fact every state, every city, and every county (or parish or whatever they call them in different parts of the country) has its own traffic code.

Which code you will be charged under generally depends on who is writing the traffic ticket. As a rule (and like any rule, there are exceptions . . . ), the city cops will write tickets under city code, the county sheriff will write it under county law, and the state highway patrol will write it under state law. The reason is, each entity gets to keep the fines for violations under its own code. So the city police won't write a ticket under state law if there is an alternative under their own municipal code.

Generally the laws at the state level require the local laws to harmonize with the state law, but exactly what that means isn't always clear to those of us who aren't legal scholars.
posted by flug at 5:35 PM on April 25, 2007

I passed both the Washington theory and practical tests a few days after I arrived. Crammed from the WA Drivers Manual beforehand for about an hour. Much easier than the UK tests. If WA is typical of most states, and you're a reasonably competent driver by UK standards, don't be too worried if you have to "start from scratch".
posted by normy at 6:32 PM on April 25, 2007

I'm asking this question from the point of view of a European driver (10+ years) who may end up having to start from scratch to earn a US (probably Texas) licence...

You have a year's grace under the reciprocity agreement, but that won't do you much good in the long term, because getting insurance on anything but a hire car will be nigh-on impossible.

I don't think Texas asks holders of international licences to surrender them when getting a Texas license. There's an obvious reason to ask for its surrender, since states can't issue endorsements on foreign licences. But it can be a pain in the arse if you want to travel back to the UK.

But yeah, on the general question, it's very much a state thing, albeit one you can probably sort out in a matter of days. Just expect your written (i.e. computerised) test to focus more on the idiosyncracies of state law than driving skills. Whether it's Texas or elsewhere, do look at the state handbook, because ignorance of the law blah etc blah, especially if you're overtaking a school bus.
posted by holgate at 7:20 PM on April 25, 2007

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