Foreign visitors can legally drive a car in the USA for up to 12 months using their home driver’s licence. However, an IDP will have more credibility with U.S. traffic police, especially if your home licence doesn’t have a photo or isn’t in English. Your automobile association at home can issue an IDP, valid for one year, for a small fee. Always carry your home licence together with the IDP.
To drive a motorcycle in the USA, you will need either a valid U.S. state motorcycle licence or an IDP specially endorsed for motorcycles.
Don’t put the key into the ignition if you don’t have insurance, which is legally required, otherwise you risk financial ruin and legal consequences if there’s an accident. If you already have auto insurance, or if you buy travel insurance that covers car rentals, make sure your policy has adequate liability coverage for where you will be driving; it probably does, but beware that states specify different minimum levels of coverage.
Rental-car companies will provide liability insurance, but most charge extra. Rental companies almost never include collision damage insurance for the vehicle. Instead, they offer an optional Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) or Loss Damage Waiver (LDW), usually with an initial deductible cost of $100 to $500. For an extra premium, you can usually get this deductible covered as well.
Paying extra for some or all of this insurance increases the cost of a rental car by as much as $30 a day. Many credit cards offer free collision damage coverage for rental cars if you rent for 15 days or less and charge the total rental to your card. This is a good way to avoid paying extra fees to the rental company, but note that if there’s an accident, sometimes you must pay the rental car company first and then seek reimbursement from the credit-card company. There may be exceptions that are not covered, too, such as ‘exotic’ rentals (e.g. 4WD Jeeps, convertibles). Check your credit-card policy.
Most rental companies require that you have a major credit card, be at least 25 years old and have a valid driver’s licence. Some major national companies may rent to drivers between the ages of 21 and 24 for an additional charge of around $25 per day. Those under 21 are usually not permitted to rent at all.
Car-rental prices vary wildly. Airport locations may have cheaper rates but higher fees; city-centre offices may do pick-ups and drop-offs. Adjusting the days of your rental even slightly can completely change the rate; weekend and weekly rates are usually cheaper.
Most national agencies make ‘unlimited mileage’ standard on all cars, but independents might charge extra for this. Tax on car rentals varies by state and agency location; always ask for the total cost, including all taxes and fees. Most agencies charge more if you pick the car up in one place and drop it off in another.
The American Automobile Association (AAA); has reciprocal membership agreements with several international auto clubs. The Better World Club donates 1% of revenue to assist environmental clean-up, offers ecologically sensitive choices for every service it provides and advocates politically for environmental causes. In either organisation, the primary member benefit is 24-hour emergency roadside assistance anywhere in the USA. Both also offer trip planning, free travel maps, travel agency services, car insurance and a range of travel discounts.
Cars drive on the right-hand side of the road. The use of seat belts and child safety seats is required in every state. Most car rental agencies rent child safety seats for around $12 per day, but you must reserve them when booking. In some states, motorcyclists are required to wear helmets.
On interstate highways, the speed limit is sometimes raised to 75mph. Unless otherwise posted, the speed limit is generally 55mph or 65mph on highways, 25mph to 35mph in cities and towns and as low as 15mph in school zones (strictly enforced during school hours). It’s forbidden to pass a school bus when its lights are flashing. Unless signs prohibit it, you may turn right at a red light after first coming to a full stop – note that turning on right on red is illegal in NYC. At four-way stop signs, cars should proceed in order of arrival; when two cars arrive simultaneously, the one on the right has the right of way. When in doubt, just politely wave the other driver ahead. When emergency vehicles (i.e. police, fire or ambulance) approach from either direction, pull over safely and get out of the way.
Most states have laws against (and hefty fines for) littering along the highway. In an increasing number of states, it is illegal to talk on a hand-held cell (mobile) phone while driving; use a hands-free device instead.
The maximum legal blood-alcohol concentration for drivers is 0.08%. Penalties are very severe for ‘DUI’ – driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. Police can give roadside sobriety checks to assess if you’ve been drinking or using drugs. If you fail, they’ll require you take a breath test, urine test or blood test to determine the level of alcohol or drugs in your body. Refusing to be tested is treated the same as if you’d taken the test and failed. In some states it is illegal to carry ‘open containers’ of alcohol in a vehicle, even if they are empty.
Road Conditions & Hazards
America’s highways are legendary ribbons of unblemished asphalt, but not always. Road hazards include potholes, city commuter traffic, wandering wildlife and, of course, cell-phone-wielding, child-distracted and enraged drivers. For nationwide traffic and road-closure information, click here. In places where winter driving is an issue, many cars are fitted with steel-studded snow tires; snow chains can sometimes be required in mountain areas. Driving off-road, or on dirt roads, is often forbidden by rental-car companies, and it can be very dangerous in wet weather.
Hitch-hiking is potentially dangerous and definitely not recommended. Indeed, drivers have heard so many lurid reports they tend to be just as afraid of those with their thumbs out. Hitch-hiking on freeways is prohibited. You’ll see more people hitch-hiking in rural areas and in Alaska and Hawaii, but these places aren’t safer than anywhere else, and with sparse traffic, you may well get stranded.
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