Driving in the USA

Driving a car in the USA isn’t as traumatic as you may think and can be quite enjoyable. The first thing to say about driving in the USA is that generally it is more relaxed than in Europe, driving speeds are lower and drivers are more polite and aware of their fellow road users.

If you have never driven in the USA before, read through this section and get to know the differences. You will be in a strange place, getting lost at home is bad enough, getting lost here can be easy if you are not concentrating.


Try to find out as much as possible before you leave home about exactly where your Hotel or Rental Home locations are in relationship to the airport. Ask on the Forums if you are unsure.
Don’t forget your driving licence and any vouchers or paper work about car hire that your travel company or agent has given to you.

Your first ‘drive’ will usually be from the airport to your accommodation. Very often you will not get any directions from the tour operator until you arrive at the airport. Obtain directions before hand, if at all possible, you should be able to get directions from the members of the forums. Study maps or online resources for as long as you can before you depart. Get an idea of where you are going. Go over and over your directions trying to get a general picture of where you are going. Write down a list of the major roads, junctions and turning points as a quick reference, it’s easy to lose your way on a map.

If you are going to be driving then don’t drink alcohol on the aircraft. The Drink Driving law is very strictly enforced and you will be charged if caught and spend a night in the cells. Not a good way to start the holiday!

The most obvious difference with driving in the USA is that they drive on the right hand side of the road. You may be familiar with this after driving your own car on the continent and if you have done this you will know that strange feeling of being on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, but at least you were in your own car and everything was familiar. The biggest difference to this is that in the US you will be on wrong side of both the road and the car. We have all got used to judging the greater distance on our left side but now the width of the car will be on the right. The arm you lean out of the window is the wrong one, the gear change (shift) is on the right and it’s an automatic. Nearly all hire cars in the USA will be Automatic.

Driving an Automatic

OK, you have found the car and put all your baggage in the trunk (that’s american speak for boot), everyone is in the car and you have familiarised yourself with the controls, you put the key in the ignition, check the shift is in Park and start the engine. As fleets are changing a lot of cars now have keyless door entry and ignition. In that case just pop the key fob in your pocket.Now you’re ready to pull out of the parking bay, but wait the gear shift will not budge. How do you get it out of Park? Well in most US Automatics you have to apply the brake pedal before you can move the gear lever to Drive.

There will also be a hand/foot brake (Parking Brake), most have a ratchet type foot brake, it acts like a handbrake and it is usually in the upper left of the footwell. Sometimes it will be on the steering column. The higher end cars will have an electronic switch to operate the parking brake. This will be located on the dash or near the gear change selector.

With the Parking Brake ‘On’ depress the brake pedal and put the vehicle into ‘Drive’. Only use one foot (the right one!) for operating the pedals. You can keep the left foot well over to the left or tuck it up against the seat. There is a slight (but only slight) possibility that when you stop quickly you will instinctively stab at the non-existent Clutch pedal with your left foot. Possibly hitting the Brake pedal with way too much force.

Most automatics will ‘creep’ at tick- over without the Brake. You can move slowly forward by just releasing and applying the Brake pedal. Use this technique in slow areas and only use the accelerator to finally pull away. Rules & Regulations, all these things can seem daunting, but fear not, they can all be absorbed by your brain in a very short space of time. Thank goodness the pedals, are at least, in the right order.

You can study the 2013 Driver License Handbook HERE
They will tell you many things – including the ‘Free Right Rule’… When you come to a traffic light in the Right Lane, you may turn Right if it is safe to do so against the light. Ensure you come to a complete stop and indicate.

Enjoy your driving experiences…

Things to Note:-

  • Do not park within 10 Feet of a Fire Hydrant.
  • You must park on the right (Your Car must never face the traffic).
  • Never park in front of red or yellow painted curbs, these are reserved for emergency vehicles.
  • Never park on a white line at a Bus Stop.
  • Pull forward into parking spaces. You often only have plates at the back.
  • Remember where you left your car! Especially in the Theme park Car Parks as they are HUGE. Most cars will honk if you double press the lock button. Very handy. Also get a car with an aerial and use a topper.
  • You need photo id with you at all times when driving. If you have the old paper style license you need your passport.
  • If you have to use your wipers you need your headlights as well.

A Common Language

Here is a list of some of the differences between British and American words associated with driving.

  • Car Bonnet = Hood
  • Hand Brake = Parking Brake
  • Car Boot = Trunk
  • Give Way = Yield
  • Gear Lever = Stick Shift
  • Torch = Flashlight
  • Windscreen = Windshield
  • Road surface = Pavement
  • Petrol = Gas
  • Pavement = Sidewalk
  • Motorway = Freeway
  • Central Reservation = Median
  • Car Park = Parking Lot

How Fast?

Your usual ‘A’ road is often an interstate, with 3 lanes or more, and a varying speed limit of anywhere between 45 and 60 mph. Just keep concentrating on the speed signs. Something to really look out for is stopping distances, often in the form of traffic lights (added to which they are not where they usually are, but are overhead). So keep an eye out ahead for changing lights. On the up side they stay yellow for longer.

Remember the ‘Move Over’ Law

If you are driving on an interstate or roadway with multiple lanes of travel in the same direction, and you approach an emergency, law enforcement, sanitation, utility services, tow truck or wrecker vehicle parked along the roadway, you must vacate the lane closest to that vehicle as soon as it is safe to do so. If you are not able to safely move over, you must slow down to a speed of 20 MPH below the posted speed limit unless directed otherwise by a law enforcement officer.

What to take with you

If you hire a car remember you will need at all times, your hire agreement and your driving licence. Since the abolition of the paper licence this is not needed apart from those drivers who have never obtained a photocard driving licence. They need to carry their passport at all times whilst driving. A DVLA Code is not required and neither is an International Driving Licence Permit (IDLP)


Depress and hold the brake pedal down while turning the key to the “start” position. Engage the starter for 3-5 seconds at a time until the engine starts.

Automatic Transmission

Your car will almost certainly have automatic gears unless you have ordered a specialist car. The gear lever(“gearshift”) will either be mounted by the steering wheel, or between the front seats (console-mount). Console mounted gearshifts include a “thumb button” required to be pressed to allow movement of the lever.

Using your Gear Shift

Most cars normally have 6 gear positions-

  • P Park
  • R Reverse
  • N Neutral
  • D Drive
  • 1 first gear
  • 2 Limits the gearbox to first & second gear only.

The last two gears are designed for use when crossing difficult terrain or climbing steep hills. Drive is the normal driving position, and the gears will automatically adjust as the car changes speed. The gears will automatically change down when the car needs extra acceleration to overtake or drive up a hill.


Many cars have remote control side mirrors. The controls are normally toggles or “joysticks” that are located either on each door, on a control panel on the driver’s door, or on the dash panel. Some cars have a written warning embossed into the passenger door mirror warning you that cars may be nearer then you think. Do not ignore this warning!


The headlights on your car may be turned on by one of the following methods:
Pull or rotate knob located on lower left-hand dash panel. On most
Chrysler cars the pull/push headlight knob is also the dimmer switch for interior lights, (speedometer etc.). Please make sure you turn the knob “OFF” or you could drain your battery.
Rotate indicator lever forward.
Press button/lever on upper left-hand dash panel
Push lever mounted on right side of the steering column upward. You can normally flash your lights by pulling or pushing your indicator lever. Be aware that in America flashing ones headlights is not used in the same fashion and for the same reasons as here in the U.K. and it is not recommended.

If the car is fitted with an automatic light function normally marked by an ‘A’ on the switch this is the best option to use and lets the car do the thinking for you.

Hazard Warning Lights

They are normally found either on top or below the steering column or on the dashboard.

Windscreen Wipers

Most windscreen wipers controls are found on the indicator lever. Rotate the lever to the required speed. Press in the lever to activate the washer.

Fuel Tank Filler Release 

If your car has a locking petrol cap the release is normally a button or switch located in the glove compartment or on the floor between the driver’s seat and floor. Sometimes it will be in the ‘pocket’ on the drivers door. If you can’t find it look for an emergency release cable which may be in the boot on the side wall nearest the petrol cap. Pull to operate.

Automatic Trunk

Some larger grade cars have “automatic” boots that slowly close themselves when you push them shut. Please do not force them

Trunk Release

If your car is equipped with an interior boot release it may be located on the floor, between the driver’s seat and door. Pull the lever to activate the release. Some models have a release button located in the glove compartment, on the dashboard or the driver’s door.

Hand Brake (Parking Brake) Release

Some cars have a foot operated parking brake located next to the brake pedal. Operate as follows: a release lever or pull tab may be located on the lower left dash panel. Pull to release. If no release lever is found, press the parking brake pedal a second time to release.

Cruise Control

Many cars are fitted with cruise control and the controls are usually on a lever attached to the steering column. Some cars have buttons or toggles on the steering wheel.To set the speed that you wish to “cruise” at turn the cruise control button “ON”. Once the desired speed is reached, press the “SET” button. To disengage simply tap the brake pedal or turn the cruise control button “OFF”.


There are often two types of gas (american speak for Petrol) pumps to be found in Orlando, one where you select the gas by button

The other is the handle type, the black part that the nozzle sits in which you lift.

Choose the regular option, but don’t rely on the colour coding.

There are mixed reports about being able to use UK bank cards at the pumps, most people go inside and hand over cash and ask for $xx worth of Gas or pre-authorise an amount on a card.

As always it’s best not to let a card out of your sight.

The pump will then dispense exactly the amount you have paid for.

If you are filling up either for normal usage or on returning the car at the airport, simply ask for an amount in excess of what you need then go back inside and receive the change or the amount you pay on your card will be changed. For example ask for $30 on Pump no 6 and if it only takes $26 just go back in and ask for the $4 change.

To conclude. The following points have been kindly prepared and regularly posted by ‘Mick’ and have proved useful for first time and indeed regular drivers.The list may be repetition of some points above but is a handy reference all in one place.

• It is reasonably well known that you can turn right at most red traffic lights unless there is a sign saying “no turn on red”. You must come to a complete stop and give way to any pedestrians and traffic on the road you are joining.

• You can legally overtake (or undertake!) in any lane so make sure you use your mirrors.

• Roundabouts (traffic circles as they are known) are very rare and I think I’ve encountered less than half a dozen in over 30 visits. There is one at the entrance to Loop West if you approach from Osceola Parkway. Recent DIBB evidence however suggests that there are more appearing on the coast.

• Four way stops are fairly common. You basically come to a complete stop and proceed in the order that you arrived at the junction. It is a law that is very well respected.

• American cars usually only have a registration plate at the rear so you should park bonnet in first if the parking bay is perpendicular to the road. Not sure if this law is enforced in private car parks like Walmart though as many people seem to drive through.

• In many places if you are parallel parking you should park at the kerb on the side of the road in the direction of travel.

• If a yellow school bus is stationary with its hazards on and red warning sign out you must stop behind it and you cannot overtake. If you are on a single carriageway or a multi lane paved highway you must stop whatever way you are travelling.

• Don’t get stressed by tolls and you are not forced to have a toll pass. Read all the pros and cons on toll passes (there a few hundred threads on here) and make your own mind up. At present there are very few cashless tolls in the Orlando area and this official web site explains them clearly https://www.sunpass.com/en/about/whereToUseSunPass.shtml There are however some unmanned toll plazas. The plazas on the main roads are manned. Just make sure that you keep well over to the right in the cash lane. Give the attendant no more than a $20 bill and ask for change. However many (if not all) of the plazas on exit ramps will not be manned and you will need to throw some quarters into the basket. I think most are 75 cents or $1.

• Loads of threads about filling up with gas on here as well especially how it can be difficult using a credit card at the pump as it asks for a zip code. We always use cash. Go inside and say $40 on pump 6 please (unless you’re parked at pump 8 ) and the pump will stop. If you can’t get $40 in the tank go back inside and get change.

• On the Interstates, the junction numbers are not sequential as they are in the UK but reflect the mileage from the road’s starting point. Very handy if you join I-4 at j65 and want to leave at j78 for example. You know you’ve got 13 miles to drive on the Interstate.

• Florida Law (Statute 316.217(b)) states that headlights are required during any rain, smoke, or fog.

Last but certainly not least. Take time to sit in the car for 5 or 10 minutes before you drive off from the rental location. Locate and check all the controls and switches for lights, indicators, windscreen washers, mirror adjustments etc. Driving into a sudden Florida downpour on the Interstate is not the time nor place to wonder where the windscreen wipers are.