Driving in the United States
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Driving in the United States is similar to driving in Canada, but very different from driving in Europe. It is not uncommon for Americans to drive more than an hour each way to work, and 77 percent of Americans drive alone to their jobs, while an additional 11 percent carpool. Most states allow people to drive unaccompanied once they have reached the age of 16, and all states require that one obtain a driver's license before they may operate a motor vehicle. All states recognize each other's driver's licenses, and Canada will recognize an American driver's license for a short visit. Driving while intoxicated is unlawful in all of the United States.
The rules of the road
Although each state sets its own traffic laws, most laws are the same or similar throughout the country, and traffic keeps to the right.
Speed limits are a hotly contested issue in the United States, with many arguing that limits are set too low whilst others are arguing that limits are set too high. Despite this, most drivers exceed the speed limit by 5-15 mph if the area appears to be free of police presence. The maximum speed limit on rural two-lane roads ranges from 50 mph in parts of the northeast to 75 mph in parts of Texas. On rural Interstate Highways, the speed limit ranges from 65 mph in the northeast to 85 mph in parts of Texas. All roads in the United States have a speed limit, but it is not always posted frequently (especially in rural areas).
Lane discipline and overtaking
Overtaking, usually called "passing", is legal on all four or more lane roads and on most two-lane roads with sufficient sight distance. On two-lane roads, one must pass to the left of the overtaken vehicle unless that vehicle is preparing to make a left turn, in which case the vehicle must be passed on the right. Passing on the left means that the overtaking vehicle must enter the oncoming lane. This should only be done in a legal passing zone, designated by either a dashed yellow centerline (indicating that passing is legal in both directions) or a solid line paired with a dashed line (indicating that passing is only legal for traffic adjacent to the broken line). A solid double yellow line indicated that passing is illegal in both directions. In some states, it is not against the law to overtake vehicles in the presence of solid yellow lines if it is safe to do so. For example, Vermont state law also allows passing across the double yellow line when no traffic is on the opposing side; however, one must pass quickly and return to the proper side. However, this is unusual as most states have a ban on crossing a double yellow line except when turning, or when pedestrians, bicycles, or other obstructions in the road make it necessary. Overtaking another vehicle across a solid yellow line is usually considered a serious traffic violation in most states.
On roads with four or more lanes (including divided highways), vehicles may pass to the left or to the right of slower vehicles as long as the maneuver can be completed safely. However, most states either suggest or require that through traffic stay to the right except to pass. The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices includes several signage standards to inform drivers of proper lane discipline, including the "STAY RIGHT PASS LEFT" and "SLOWER TRAFFIC KEEP RIGHT" signs.
Seat belt use
Seat belt legislation is another hotly contested issue, as many drivers feel that their rights are violated by such laws. Despite this, 49 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws requiring seat belt use by at least all occupants of the front seat. New Hampshire is the only state with no such requirement for adults (anyone under 18 must have use a seat belt). The majority of states do not require rear seat occupants to wear seat belts, but it would be wise to check each individual state's law. In 24 states the seat belt law is considered to be only a secondary offense, meaning that a police officer can only ticket a person for violating the seat belt law if the driver has already been stopped for another reason. The effectiveness of seat belt laws varies considerably throughout the country, with some areas observing over 95 percent usage and others with less than 40 percent usage.
Drunk driving is the act of operating and/or driving a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs to the degree that mental and motor skills are impaired. It is illegal in all jurisdictions within the U.S. The specific criminal offense is usually called driving under the influence [of alcohol and/or other drugs] (DUI), and in some states driving while intoxicated (DWI), operating while impaired (OWI), or operating a vehicle under the influence (OVI). Such laws may also apply to boating or piloting aircraft. Vehicles can include farm machinery and horse-drawn carriages.
In the United States the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that 17,941 people died in 2006 in alcohol-related collisions, representing 40% of total traffic deaths in the US. NHTSA states 275,000 were injured in alcohol-related accidents in 2003. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that in 1996 local law enforcement agencies made 1,467,300 arrests nationwide for driving under the influence of alcohol, compared to 1.9 million such arrests during the peak year in 1983. The arrest rate for alcohol-related offenses among American Indians was more than double that for the total population during 1996, and almost 4 in 10 American Indians held in local jails had been charged with a public order offense, most commonly driving while intoxicated. In 1997 an estimated 513,200 DWI offenders were under correctional supervision, down from 593,000 in 1990 and up from 270,100 in 1986.
NHTSA defines fatal collisions as "alcohol-related" if they believe the driver, a passenger, or non-motorist (such as a pedestrian or pedal cyclist) had a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.01 or greater. NHTSA defines nonfatal collisions as alcohol-related if the accident report indicates evidence of alcohol present. NHTSA specifically notes that alcohol-related does not necessarily mean a driver or non occupant was tested for alcohol and that the term does not indicate a collision or fatality was caused by the presence of alcohol. On average, about 60% of the BAC values are missing or unknown. To analyze what they believe is the complete data, statisticians simulate BAC information. Drivers with a BAC of 0.10 are 6 to 12 times more likely to get into a fatal crash or injury than drivers with no alcohol.
In the United States, the issuance of licenses is the authority of individual states (including Washington, D.C. and all territories). Drivers are normally required to obtain a license from their state of residence, and all states recognize each other's licenses for temporary visitors subject to normal age requirements. A state may also suspend an individual's driving privilege within its borders for traffic violations. Many states share a common system of license classes, with some exceptions, and commercial license classes are standardized by the federal law of 49 CFR part 383.
- US Census Press Releases[dead link]
- DOT HS 809775, a.k.a. Traffic Safety Facts 2003
- Four in Ten Criminal Offenders Report Alcohol as a Factor in Violence: But Alcohol-Related Deaths and Consumption in Decline, April 5, 1998, United States Bureau of Justice Statistics
- American Indians are Violent Crime Victims at Double the Rate of General Population, February 19, 1999, United States Bureau of Justice Statistics
- DWI Offenders under Correctional Supervision, June 1999, United States Bureau of Justice Statistics
- Traffic Safety Facts 2004
- Overview of the Alcohol-Crash Problem Crash Risk
- Part 383: Commercial driver's license standards; requirements and penalties - Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration
- Electronic Code of Federal Regulations: