Outside of major US cities, public transportation options are often insufficient for most individual transportation needs. If you’re considering a nursing career in the US, chances are you’ll need to learn about US traffic laws and norms to get around safely. For many international nurses transitioning to a career in the US, learning to drive or adjusting to US traffic laws can be intimidating at first. Here are a few things to be mindful of when driving in the United States.

US Traffic Basics

While every state in the United States has its own traffic-related laws and regulations, some basic rules apply across the country. Cars drive on the right side of the road (with the exception of the US Virgin Islands). In a traffic circle or roundabout, vehicles in the circle have the right of way. If you see an emergency vehicle such as a fire truck or an ambulance with lights flashing or horns sounding, pull aside to allow them to pass. On multi-lane highways, you should pass slower-moving traffic on the left. In some states, passing on the right can be a ticketed offense but even where it’s not illegal, it’s considered rude or dangerous. You should generally only use the fast lanes for passing (lingering there is a good way to annoy fellow drivers), and otherwise, always keep right.

Observe all posted speed limits, which are in miles per hour, and keep an eye out for construction zones. Speeding tickets in construction zones can carry costly fines and can even lead to your driving privileges being suspended. When it comes to road markings, white lines separate lanes of traffic moving in the same direction, and yellow lines separate lanes of traffic moving in the opposite direction. A dashed line indicates passing is allowed, while a double solid line should never be crossed. In suburban and rural areas, you may encounter roads where one line is solid while the other line is dashed. This means cars on the side closest to the dashed line are permitted to use the other lane to pass other vehicles if the road ahead is clear of opposite traffic.

Right of Way at Stop Signs and Yields

Right of way at controlled intersections is one of the more complex aspects of US traffic laws. At a one or two-way stop, you must yield to traffic not facing a stop or yield sign. At a four-way stop (also called an all-way stop), the first vehicle to reach the intersection goes first. If several drivers reach the intersection at the same time, drivers on the left must yield to drivers on their right. Follow this link for a detailed explanation of who goes first at controlled intersections with diagrams and videos. 

Rather than requiring a full stop, a yield sign means you must be prepared to stop and yield the right-of-way to other vehicles or pedestrians in or approaching the intersection, but if the way is clear, you can continue without stopping. 

Watching Out for Others on the Road

Motorcyclists are entitled to use the full width of a traffic lane. Give them the same amount of space when passing them as you would another vehicle. If you use a bicycle or non-motorized scooter to get around, you’re expected to follow the same rules as vehicles. Both drivers and cyclists should yield to pedestrians. Pedestrians should cross at marked crosswalks whenever possible. While enforcement varies widely, jaywalking (crossing the street on foot outside of a crosswalk) is illegal in most parts of the country.

School buses are important vehicles to look out for when driving in the US because they make frequent stops and have specific laws that apply to them. When a school bus comes to a stop and presents a stop sign (on the driver’s side of the vehicle), traffic in both lanes must stop. Even if you see pedestrians exiting to the same side of the road as the school bus and you’re traveling in the opposite direction, you must stop and wait until the school bus retracts its stop sign before continuing. School buses are also required to come to a complete stop at railroad crossings, so expect to stop if you’re driving behind one.

State-Specific Traffic Laws in the US

Some traffic laws vary by state. Prepare to research laws specific to any state you’ll be driving in before you arrive. Laws with the most variation between states include: driving age limits, turning right at a red light, when headlights must be used, seatbelt laws, and age-appropriate car seats for children. Some but not all states require drivers to give a one-lane buffer to stopped emergency vehicles, commonly referred to as a Move Over law. Hitchhiking, the practice of soliciting a ride by standing at the edge of a road, facing traffic, with one’s thumb extended, is legal in most states, but restrictions can vary even by county.

Adjusting to US Traffic Laws & Norms

If this seems like a lot of information to take in, remember that there are many resources available to help you acclimate to life in the US. Our Partnership Program ensures that you’ll be supported throughout your career journey, from completing requirements to securing a job, as well as support throughout your transition. Learn more about the path to nursing in the US here.