Driving In The USA For South Africans

I recently returned from a trip to Northern California where I spent a week driving around the Golden State. Driving in the USA was something I was very nervous about but it turned out to be much easier than I had expected. As many South Africans are anxious about driving in a foreign country, I thought I would point out a few key differences, tips and experiences which might help.

Obvious differences

There are a number instantly recognisable differences:

  • You drive on the other side of the road
  • You sit on the other side of the car
  • Almost all cars are automatic
  • Distances and speeds are in miles and miles per hour
  • Volumes are in gallons
  • You keep right (slow lane), pass left (fast lane)

If you’re trying to work out how much you’re paying for fuel, a gallon is 3.78 litres, so divide the gallon rate by that number to get the per litre rate. It roughly worked out to about R11-R12 per litre of fuel there but in California many cars are either hybrids (like the Prius) or have ultra fuel-efficient engines like the Ford’s Ecoboost range (which I drove), so you’ll get plenty of bang for your buck!

Collecting a rental car

This was a totally weird experience for me. I picked up my car from San Francisco International Airport where the car rental is a short, free airport train ride from the main airport building (just look for signs). You arrive at what looks like airline check-in desks right in front of the train doors. You go to the car hire company you rented through and hand them all your documents. They then swipe your card and tell you to proceed through the doors at the end of the room. Immediately you are in the garage and you follow the signs to the rental company’s section. This is where it gets weird. You look at the class of car on your rental documents (Small, Mid-size, Large, Mid-size SUV and so on) and proceed to the row of cars with that label. You then just climb into any car you fancy and drive off, the keys are in the car. They’ll scan you at the gate to link the car to your rental and that’s that.

Speed limits

I found the speed limits weird in California, the freeways have a maximum limit of 65 miles per hour which is a sleepy 104km/h. You’ll find few Americans breaking the speed limit, though a handful might, so get used to going a little slower than back home.

When you get on the highways however (don’t be fooled by the name, they’re the smaller roads somewhat similar to our R roads here) the speed limit is usually 55 miles per hour or 88km/h. I found this rather ridiculous as these roads are full of sharp bends where it’s sometimes not possible to go faster than 15 miles per hour, yet the American drivers in their big pick-up trucks tear around these corners at a hell of a lick.

Passing traffic in the USA

With that being said, let’s explain passing. The general rule is to keep right at all times and pass left, though many Americans ignore this and pass left, right or down the middle lane on freeways. However, you won’t be annoying anyone by obeying the rule. Always indicate when changing lanes or turning; Americans indicate for a good 50-100m before the actual turn, unlike our impulsive indicate-as-you-turn practice here in SA.

If you’re on the smaller highways you’ll see signs saying “turn out 1/4 mile”, a turn out is a short tarred or level gravel spot on the right side of the road for you to pull over and let the faster vehicles behind you pass. You indicate, pull over and come to a complete stop before checking if it’s safe to pull off and enter the road again. Occasionally there will be passing lanes, indicated by signs which are generally on inclines and are similar to our passing lanes on national roads, if a little shorter. You never overtake on a solid line.

In towns and at intersections

The speed limit generally drops to 35 miles per hour (56km/h) or 25 miles per hour (40km/h) in urban areas, locals are very serious about these urban speed limits, so stick to them! Most urban areas use stop streets and traffic lights, these work the same way as in South Africa for the most part with the exception of those turning right at traffic lights. If the traffic light is red for you, but you want to turn right, you are still permitted to do so after coming to a complete stop and checking that no traffic is coming from the left before making the turn. Essentially, a red light becomes a yield sign to those turning right.

Always give way to pedestrians at designated crossings or intersections, except when the light is green for you to go straight; turning right/left requires you to give way to pedestrians though, except when there’s a green arrow for the turning lane. Americans rarely jaywalk as it’s somewhat of a crime, but pedestrian crossings, without robots, are frequent and you must stop for pedestrians.

I was told that there are no traffic circles in America, this is a downright lie. There may be fewer than back home, but a few new urban intersections contain traffic circles. The rule is simple: it’s opposite to back home. You move anti-clockwise around the circle and yield to traffic on the left.

School buses, cop cars and bicycles

If a school bus is stopped on the side of the road and has its lights flashing and the little stop sign sticking out on the side of the bus, you must come to a complete stop behind the bus as children are crossing. With police and emergency vehicles stopped on the side of the road, you should pass slowly and widely around them (a full lane is recommended). Cyclists are royal game in the US, or at least in California, so keep a sizeable distance from them and proceed carefully – as the signs say “bikes are traffic too.”

Licence and registration

We’ve all heard it in the movies where the officer asks the driver for licence and registration. If you’re renting a car, you’ll have your SA drivers licence with you and maybe an international drivers licence too (I’m still not sure if this is needed, as each time I showed it to someone they looked puzzled, stared it briefly and then handed it back to me before checking out my SA drivers card). Your registration is a little white certificate in your glove compartment that looks quasi-official, though less so than our registrations in SA. Don’t remove this from your car!

Better than South Africa

The hooter, or “horn” as they call it in the States? Forget you have one. In South Africa your hooter is a tool used to express rage at your fellow road user so that you don’t have to risk jail time for physical assault. In the USA, it’s a tool to warn your fellow road user of a possible impending accident and with the relaxed and courteous manner in which drivers act there, you’ll probably never need to use it.

Everyone is super courteous on the road: people respect safe following distances, allow you into the lane when you indicate, give way to traffic from on-ramps, are mindful of pedestrians and are generally good citizens on the road. It’s something we could certainly learn from and it adds to a very peaceful driving experience. So if you’re worried about driving in the USA, you can rest assured that this nervous driver found it an absolute pleasure!

Our Readers Comments

  1. My sister who lives there is so paranoid, she won’t let me use her car. I’m 39… I have been driving for over 20 years… I have never had an accident…. so I will just rent a car seeing that she “can’t handle the stress”. So thanks for clarifying all of this – it seems easy enough…

  2. Hi i have a code 10 ( C1) license in South Africa what code does it represent in USA or Canada?

    • Hi Thomas,

      For this you would need to contact the Embassy direct.

      One of their official agents should be able to assist and provide you with the most up to date information.

  3. Thanks for this !

    Really helps as Im pretty nervous about our planned drive from Washington to NYC.

    Anyone been asked for an international drivers license or has the SA one worked for all ?


  4. Do you know off company where my husband can apply or an agency to use?

    • Hi there,

      Thanks for getting in touch.

      As we do not specialize in this area it is best to contact the US Embassy they will be able to provide you with the most up to date information on correct procedures to follow.

      I did google and found the following: https://www.usa.gov/visitors-driving#item-37267

      However I am not sure if this information is guaranteed.

  5. can I drive a truck in the Usa with my South african Code 14

    • Hi Hendrik,

      To my knowledge you would need to get an international drivers licence.

      I do suggest you contact the AA direct as they specialize in this area and would be able to give you the most up to date information.

  6. Can you help. I’m applying a job interview this week to go to the USA. I do have a drivers licence but want to divert it to be able to drive in the USA. What am I to do.

    • Hi Michele,

      I’m afraid we do not specializes with this.

      I suggest you contact the Embassy direct, maybe they would be able to point you in the right direction or give you information on the correct procedures to follow.

  7. Thanks – very informative. Just to add: I was told that at an intersection, if the robot is green, and you want to turn left, you may not proceed to the middle of the intersection and wait for oncoming traffic to pass. You have to wait at the robot with your left indicator on until oncoming traffic has passed, then only may you move into the intersection to turn left. Cars behind you wait patiently, even if they want to drive straight.

  8. Very helpful. Much appreciated.

  9. Great work Nick. Very well written and extremely informative.

  10. You had done a great task by defining the rules and regulations of USA, this article is very informative, I like this type of articles.

  11. My cousin showing her Swedish library card. Works just fine as a driver’s license in the United States.

  12. Hi!, Excellent report!, and excellent blog.
    Just a comment about driving in US: turning in red lights is only permitted in some states, and you must come to a complete stop before turning to the right in red. Is not a yield sign 🙂
    Cheers from Chile!,

    • The article is very correct except as Gabriel has pointed out.. you must STOP before you turn at a red “robot” traffic light. Useing it as a “Yield” is illegal. Having driven in Europe, Uk and USA, it is a shock when you get back to SA and the impatinet, rude and aggressive driving styles.

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