Plan your USA road trip – 10 tips for driving in California

Driving in a foreign country can be nerve-racking. Everything’s different, you’re on the wrong side of the road, the street signs are all funny… And there are road rules that you don’t even know exist. Here are our top 10 driving tips you should know about on the road in California.

Mr and Mrs Romance - USA roadtrip - driving tips

Click here for our free printable cheat sheet for driving in the USA here.

California is an excellent place for a road trip. Spectacular coastal roads, enormous freeways, grid-patterned city streets, windy back roads… but driving here has its issues.

While we were there recently, we discovered California has a number of strange rules that – if broken – will get you a ticket faster than you can say zinfandel.

On the topic of zinfandel and wine, how’s this one for starters: you can’t have an open container of alcohol in your car. Makes sense, but if you’re in a taxi, bus, truck, camper or motorhome (and not driving), the rule does not apply.

Initially we thought we’d have maybe 3 rules to give you. But then we started digging and discovered a wealth of driving eccentricities and legal ambushes set up to catch the unwary visiting driver.

Some of these are not written rules, more like Californian habits that will make people a little cray cray if you don’t follow along.

Mr and Mrs Romance - USA roadtrip - driving route 66Mr and Mrs Romance - USA roadtrip - 10 driving tips for California

Our top 10 tips for driving in California

1. Pedestrians are always right!
Drivers will go out of their way to give pedestrians the right of way. I was walking down the street once and a lady drove out of a driveway to get onto the road.

She saw me coming and hurried to reverse back into the driveway for me to cross. It was crazy. In Sydney, it’s the other way round!

Pedestrians should only cross at the corners of streets or at proper crossings. But if someone decides to walk out into the road, it’s their right of way and the driver’s problem. This is in the DMV book of road rules – just much wordier.

2. Street parking #1 – wheel positions
If you park on a hill along the curb, turn the wheels the right way.

Parking up hill? Turn your wheels away from the gutter so the car rolls into the curb.

Parking down hill? Turn your wheels the other way facing into the curb.

This is in case your brakes fail and your car doesn’t roll into traffic. Good idea. But aren’t most cars are automatic these days…

Anyway, you need to get your front tire touching the curb or you could get a parking ticket.

Also remember to park on the right side of the road (unless you’re in a one-way street) and you have to be within 18 inches of the curb.

Mr and Mrs Romance - USA roadtrip - 10 driving tips for California

3. Street parking #2 – look at the colours of the curbs
California has a system of colours to tell you if you can park there or not – and never park next to a fire hydrant!
White: loading or unloading passengers – no more than a couple of minutes’ parking.
Yellow: loading or unloading passenger or deliveries – maximum 5 mins.
Red: no stopping, standing or parking. Ever.
Blue: disabled permit holders only.
Other than that, you can park wherever you want!

4. Stop signs – the California Roll
Stop signs are everywhere in California. They’re more common that traffic lights. You’re supposed to come to a complete stop at stop signs, but most drivers just slow down until they’re pretty much stopped, then carry on.

People call this the California Roll. It’s not legal (or anything to do with sushi), but it’s what happens.

Pedestrians can cross at a stop sign because – in theory – you’re supposed to stop anyway. But then again, pedestrians can pretty much do what they want.

The four-way stop sign. At crossroads, you might see an All Stop sign. This means – if you’re the first person to the intersection, you have the right of way. If four cars all get to the intersection at the same time, it becomes a funny stand-off. Whoever takes the initiative goes first.

5. Don’t drive too slowly
In Cali, drivers don’t mind you cutting in front of them or even pulling out in front of them, but they hate being held up. Go the speed limit (at the very least) or woe betide you.

Mr and Mrs Romance - USA roadtrip - 10 driving tips for California

6. You can turn right even when the lights are red
If you’re at a red light and want to turn right, you can go! Just make sure there’s nothing coming before you turn.

Also keep an eye out for signs saying ‘No turn on red’. They crop up every now and then.

7. Beware the flashers
If someone flashes you, it means they’re not letting you in not the other way round!

8. Most cars don’t have yellow rear indicators – they’re red the same as the brake lights. Mrs Romance kept having trouble with this one. It looks like they’ve got an electrical fault or that they’re braking, but it’s not.

9. Turning left lane
If you’re on a multi-lane road and want to turn left, you’ll probably see an extra lane that no one really drives in. When you see your turning, indicate and get in that lane.

You can only be in the lane for 200 feet, so no overtaking in it or anything like that, and watch for people on the other side of the road turning left – they might be using the same lane!

10. Car pool lane tricks
When you’re on the freeway, you’ll see the far left lane sometimes has a diamond shape painted on the road. This is the carpool lane. Any vehicle with 2 or more people in it can use this lane and it’s awesome. It’s pretty much always much emptier and faster than the other lanes.

You have to get into and out of the carpool lane when there are broken lines. If it’s a solid line, you have to stay put. No weaving in and out!

In San Diego, the carpool lane is called the ‘HOV lane’ – High Occupancy Vehicle. In other words 2 or more people in the car. Hardly high occupancy but there you go.

Bonus tip: Getting gas – pay before you pump.
You have to pre-pay for your petrol – or swipe your card at the pump – to get the bowser to work. Problem is, you need to enter your postcode as well. This is to prevent credit card fraud.

Try typing 00000 or 99999 as the zip code, or 0 + your Australian postcode. Otherwise hand your credit card to the cashier, pump the petrol then go back in and pay.

You might have to sign for a nominal amount (say $50), pump the petrol and the actual amount will be charged to your card. If you want a receipt, go back to kiosk to sign for the actual amount pumped.

If this is all a bit too much to digest, here’s our free downloadable cheat sheet for driving in the USA.

Mr and Mrs Romance - USA roadtrip - 10 driving tips for California

Driving in America is great fun – there’s just so much to do and see. And the road systems are excellent. We can’t wait for the next opportunity to get back Stateside and out on the open road – we’d love to follow this itinerary Travel Meets Happy has done across the Pacific Northwest. What an amazing drive that would be.

If you ever get the opportunity to drive in the States, take it. It’s something you’ll never forget. The only problem could be you’ll be aching to get back out on the open road as soon as you’re home again.

Mr and Mrs Romance - USA roadtrip - 10 driving tips for California

Have you ever driven in the States? What did you think? Where did you go? Where’s your favourite place to take a roadtrip? Tell us in the comments!

Images by Mrs Romance.

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