Traffic and Road Rules in the USA

Posted On: February 26, 2015

When moving to the US, getting a car and learning the traffic and road rules in the USA will be on top of your list. Unlike in other countries, living without a car is not an option for many as public transportation is not as accessible or popular in most areas. Therefore, getting your car and driver licence will be imperative. When preparing for your driver test, you will need to keep in mind common traffic and road rules in the USA. As this blog is tailored to those working and living between the US and India, much of the advice in this blog may compare common road rules and driving expectations between the US and India. 


Traffic and Road Rules in the USA for NRIs and Expats

Driving Rules in the USA for Expats
Jennifer Kumar, when riding in a car in India…
My US culture upbringing hard programmed into
me to wear a seat belt always… regardless!!

Always Wear Your Seat Belt

If you are a driver or front-seat passenger, always wear your seat belt. There are fines for getting caught not wearing it. If you get in an accident and don’t wear it, your car insurance will increase. Each state has different rules for the ages of the backseat drivers having to wear seat belts. Many states have a rule of under the age of 13 have to wear a seat belt. Children under particular heights and weights have to use booster seats. Infants and toddlers must use car seats. It’s illegal to place booster seats or car seats in the passenger seat. They must be placed in the back seat. 

Do Not Overcrowd Your Car 

The number of passengers in a car is limited to the number of seat belts available. Do not exceed this number because it can result in a fine.

Follow the Speed Limit 

Speed limits are clearly noted on signs. Unlike some places in India where different vehicles have different speed limits, this would be rare or non-existent in the US. Every vehicle is treated equally. The speed limit for one vehicle applies to all vehicles. Some areas may have a minimum speed limit. Exceeding the maximum speed limit or driving below the minimum speed limit can result in getting pulled over by the police and getting a ticket. Also beware of speed limit changes in construction and school zones. Breaking the law in these areas is more serious on various levels, resulting in higher fines and penalties depending on the state you are in. 

Sheriff Pickup Truck in Utah

Stop Fully at all Stop Signs and Red Lights

In some areas of India, people come to a rolling stop at red lights and stop signs. Though this can happen in the US, take note that many intersections in cities may have traffic cameras recording your movements and especially noting your license plate number. All they have to do is look up your license plate number and send you a ticket in the mail so it is important to stop fully at all stop signs and red lights.

A Yield Sign is Different than a Stop Sign

Traffic Rules for Expats in the USA

Do NOT Pass School Buses with Flashing Red Lights

A school bus has two colored flashing lights. The first color to flash is orange to warn you to slow down, soon the door will open and kids will get out. The second color light to flash is red. Red means STOP. If you pass a school bus with flashing red lights from ANY side, you will get ticketed and in some states you can be put into jail too. 

Only Pass on the LEFT side

Unlike in India where you can pass (overtake) on either side going in the same direction; in the US we can only pass on the LEFT. It’s illegal to pass on the right. The right side is often called the ‘shoulder’ or the ‘side of the road.’ The shoulder or side of the road is not meant for driving.

Use the Shoulder for its Intended Uses

The shoulder of the road, a concept not readily understood within most areas of India, is common on US roads. The shoulder is the area of the road extending past the white line and to the unpaved ground. The shoulder is reserved for emergencies. If your car breaks down, ‘pull over’ or move your car to the side of the road. If you need to make a cell (mobile) phone call, pull onto the shoulder. (It is illegal to talk on your phone and drive in most states and you can get heavily fined and have points on your license which effects your driving record; which can increase your car insurance). It is always important to remember to turn on your 4-way flashers (hazard lights) when parked on the shoulder of a busy road so that other drivers are aware you are there to avoid an accident. You would do this during the day or night times. 

Getting Pulled Over by the Cops 

Another use for the shoulder is to pull into it if you get pulled over by a state trooper. If you are driving and notice a police car coming up from behind with the lights flashing and siren blaring, pull over. 

Pull Out Into the Road F-A-S-T

In India, people have a habit of slowly inching into the traffic. This is not a common practice in most areas of US. People already driving on the road will not slow down to allow you into traffic. Be sure to turn on your blinker (indicator) and wait for a break in the traffic. If you pull out slow into traffic and oncoming traffic collide with your car, you will be at fault and your car insurance premiums rise. Additionally, always take care to use the correct blinker when turning or pulling out into traffic. Accidents that are found at fault of the driver not using their blinker will be fined and reported to their insurance company. Drivers found at fault for accidents generally notice a rise in insurance premiums, are responsible to pay for damages of the other driver’s cars, and may have points put on their driver’s license. 

Use Four Way Flashers for Indicating a Problem

If your car is not working properly and you have to drive slower than most drivers on the road, put on your four way flashers. This indicates to others driving up quickly behind you that you are going slower. If you are unable to keep up with the traffic and there is a shoulder, it’s appropriate to drive short distances on the shoulder with your four way flashers on. 

Give Right of Way

Some of the tips I have already given in this post teach about right of way. There are many rules for giving the right of way. Take note that giving the right of way is not only important for other drivers but pedestrians and cyclists also.


Pedestrians are, by law, to cross in designated crosswalks. When approaching a cross-walk in a car, slow down. If anyone is walking in the cross-walk stop completely and let them cross. If a driver hits a pedestrian in a cross-walk, that’s a major offense; the driver is at fault. However, in most cases hitting a pedestrian outside a crosswalk, though punishable, the punishment will also fall on the pedestrian for breaking the law and not crossing in the cross-walk. (Those not crossing in the cross-walk are considered ‘jaywalking’. This is an offense in most cities; punishable by high fines and in rare cases, jail time.) This video sums up nicely the problems drivers and pedestrians face while crossing the street outside the cross-walk.

Learn more about how to use the crosswalk (zebra crossing) in the USA. 

“Looking Both Ways Before Crossing”

Whether driving or walking, Americans are taught to ‘look both ways’ before crossing the road or making a turn. In some cases, this is a very important traffic rule for expats in the USA as some expats come from countries where driving is done on the opposite side of the road. It will become important to be careful which directions you look while crossing the street. 

Parking Rules

In India, people seem to park their car in any open place, and double and triple park in some cases without penalty (that I have seen, maybe there is in places I haven’t seen). Parking on many roads would be done on the side of the road or on the shoulder. On major highways and toll-roads parking on the side of the road is generally prohibited. Parking on bridges is also illegal in many areas. Double or triple parking seen in cities is done by delivery people, but if normal drivers do it, they are ticketed and it can weigh against their car insurance and points on their driver license. Also assure where you park in cities is allowable and look for any tolls that need to be paid. Some cities stagger parking- parking on one side of the road is allowed one day, and on the other side of the road the other day. Carry dimes and quarters for parking meters and parking fee booths. Some sophisticated meters may allow credit cards. Not all parking garages will allow payments in credit card. Take note that many cities have ‘traffic police’- cops specifically assigned to check parking meters and ticket those who do not comply to the parking rules and fees.

Always look at the signs where you will park your car in cities. Some allow you to park on certain sides of the road on certain days, while others do not allow you to park on particular roads from say 10pm to 6am. 

Different Kinds of Parking Meters and Payments in the US

Keep coins with you if you will be parking in small towns. If you are in a city, most likely the meters will accept digital payments. In some cases, the meter will accept credit cards or debit cards ONLY. In some cases, you can also pay by phone by downloading an app and paying using digital payments through that app. In other cases, if you are parking at some particular meters or spots meant for particular businesses, you may need to download a parking app and get a code from the business to waive the parking fee. In other cases, we have also texted a code to a parking meter system to get the fee waived.

A parking meter in Cedar Rapids, Iowa that accepts digital payments. 


A parking meter in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania that accepts only US coins.


In Birmingham, Alabama we saw this meter that has a sign on it
stating re-feeding is illegal. I think it means that as your time expires
on a meter, you can’t put money in your meter or someone else’e meter
to stay longer. You have to move the car before the time limit is over.
Not quite sure, if it means the same thing everywhere.

Driver License Rules

As an expat, you can get a US driver license once you take the tests. If you move to a different state, within a certain amount of days, it is mandatory to change your driver license and car’s license plate to the new state you are in if you own your own car. Each state’s rules are a little different, so check up with the state’s driver license issuing authority for more information. If the driver license from your previous state doesn’t expire for awhile, in some cases, you can get a refund on the unused time.

Jennifer Kumar, blog author, got her Utah Driver License when moving
from New York State to Utah. In this process, it was mandatory to 
retake the written driver test, but not the actual driving test in a car.

Car Insurance

Always, always maintain car insurance. Do not let it lapse. When visiting India do not cancel  it. In many states a car without car insurance is considered illegal. Many Desis rent apartments or homes, in most states keeping an uninsured car on someone else’s property is considered illegal. It has been known that landlords, when they find out about uninsured and unregistered cars will have them towed away. Sometimes the owner can recover the car for a fee, sometimes they cannot. Each state has different rules regarding this. Find out at your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).


Additionally, don’t forget to visit the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) when moving to another state to get a new driver’s license.

I know there are a LOT more driving and road safety rules I can share with you to keep you NRIs safe in the USA, but these are the main ones that come to my mind now.

Stay safe!


Among the many topics that author Jennifer Kumar prepares expat assignees for when traveling to the USA, traffic and road rules often tops the list as there are so many stark differences. Get in touch with us to prepare your expat assignees to the US for relocation and business success.


Editor, Jennifer Tam, helps entrepreneurs with business planning and forecasting.


Original post: 2/15, updated 5/2020
All pictures copyright, Jennifer Kumar


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