What’s the Difference Between Driving in Australia and the USA?

August 7, 2018


On the road


Pauline Morrissey

They say it’s important to travel in order to learn more about other countries that are different from your own. It helps you appreciate where you’re from, but at the same time, gain a better understanding about what could possibly be improved.

During a six-month, cross-country road trip in North America in 2017 with my husband, I came to notice the many differences between our country’s road design, culture and habits. Whilst some aspects seemed a little odd and foreign, others, I could see Aussie drivers taking a liking to.

Here are some of the more interesting differences to note.

1. ‘Wrong’ side of the road

Even from a young age, we have come to know that Americans drive on the other side of the road. Like many other traits, we Australians have inherited our left-sided driving from our British heritage, but it may surprise you to learn that most of the world actually does drive on the right-side of the road.

They say old habits are hard to break, which is why when you first go to hop in the driver's seat — on the other side of the car — things will feel slightly off. You'll also notice other quirks like seeing cars pass on a different side than you’re used to, or even something as simple as the gear shifter being on your right, instead of your left. But your biggest test will be, turning at an intersection and needing to remind yourself which lane and which side of the road you are turning into.

During our road trip, we got given this hot tip by a local to help when turning; “righty tighty, lefty loosey”.

World map
A world map of which countries drive on which side. Source: Rhino Car Hire

2. Pay before you pump

One of our great traits as Australians is that we’re very trusting people. Consider how simple it is to buy our fuel; you turn up, take out the nozzle, and start pumping, before going inside to pay. But the U.S. doesn’t share our honest nature. There, every pump has a credit or debit card machine attached to the pump, requiring you to pre-authorise your payment prior to allowing you to fill-up.

And if you can’t pay with card, then you still need to head in to the store and hand over some cash to the attendant before they switch the pump on for you.

3. A fully connected highway network

We’ve all been cruising along the Australian highways, only to be stopped dead by a set of traffic lights as soon as we reach a city. We may never understand why our government designs a 110km/hr road to just end abruptly in suburban streets, but if there’s one thing the Yanks do well, it’s highways. Starting way back in the 1950’s, President Eisenhower laid out the plan for a national grid of highways to connect the country from coast to coast.

This is the main reason for those massive concrete ‘spaghetti junction’ interchanges that seamlessly connects drivers heading in different directions, without ever needing to stop.

4. Flashing red traffic light

This is just one of those road rules that you really wouldn’t know about until you do drive in the U.S., and one that we may have never discovered, having not been pulled up by a police officer in California for breaking it. Driving along a main street in Palm Springs, we came to an intersection with the traffic lights flashing red. Without other cars around to indicate what the normal protocol was, we slowly drove through the intersection and was shortly pulled over by a kind policeman.

As it turns out, a flashing red light means the same thing as a red octagon ‘Stop’ sign in Australia. We explained our ignorance and were kindly let off with a warning and a quick reminder that things were different here.

5. Using the indicator is a rarity

The car indicator is a pretty logical design; you need to let other drivers behind or around you, know when you’re about to turn left or right. Here in Australia, it’s not only useful for your own safety, but should you forget to use it, you can count on other Aussie drivers to let you know with an aggressive ‘toot’ of their horn. But after many months on the American road, one thing we came to notice was the use of the ol’ blinker was very lax.

Everywhere from New York City to a desert road in Utah, it seemed like using blinkers to indicate whilst changing lanes or merging was a rare sight — and what’s more, other drivers didn’t seem to bat an eye.

Office worker holding mug
It's there for a reason. Source: Smiths Lawyers

6. Different driving lingo

Considering that the modern automobile was invented and popularised in America, it would serve that a lot of the terminology around cars and driving comes from there. But again, owing to our British heritage, and a general war between UK English and American English, we fall in the familiarity of the British terms. Our ‘boot’ is what the Yanks call a ‘trunk’, ‘petrol stations’ are their ‘gas stations’, and the ‘bonnet’ is called a ‘hood’.

But some of the best ones invented by the U.S. are ones that we Aussies don’t use too often, or not at all; like ‘jaywalking’, getting in a ‘fender-bender’, or when you need to ‘flip-a-bitch’ which actually means to ‘chuck a U-ey’.

7. Creative state crossing signs

The great American road trip gives travellers many photo opportunities in front of all the iconic landscapes that dot the country, but one of the more cheesy photos to add to the travel album, are in front of the unique and interesting state signs as you cross from one of the 48 mainland states, into another. You’ll find them on highways and also back roads, and in most places, there’s a nice big area to pull-over, off the road, to set-up a tripod and do your best ‘oh, what a feeling, Toyota!’ jump in the air.

On the other hand, crossing states in Australia feels less of an event, which comes to no surprise that Aussies aren’t pulling-off on the side of the road at one of our lacklustre state crossing signs to take a snap. This is something I wish us Australians would adopt as we came to find it was a nice little pick-me-up after hours and hours of driving.

Utah welcome road sign
Welcome to Utah! Source: iStock
Pauline Morrissey

Pauline has worked in-house at Smith's Lawyers and has written for publications such as Domain, Real Living, Traveller, Time Out, Sitchu, and Houzz.