Driving in the Golden State isn’t always a tranquil experience. Californians have an interesting interpretation of how to drive a car, and while you’re likely to have better luck cruising away from big cities, nothing is guaranteed here. Though you might add a few years to your life by avoiding the state’s traffic altogether, you won’t want to miss out on the beauty of the iconic Pacific Coast Highway and other scenic California road trips. Besides, taking rideshares everywhere will cost a fortune (especially if you’re heading across an urban city), so you’re better off learning how to drive like a Californian.
The Unspoken Driving Rules in California
We know everyone from out of state thinks we’re bad drivers, but the same can be said about almost anyone. And the truth is, we know exactly what we’re doing—but with a whole list of unofficial driving rules, it can be hard to keep up with them. So, before you go around pointing fingers, here are California’s unwritten rules of the road.
Rule 1: Watch Out for Lane Splitters
This is definitely something out-of-staters should know about—lane splitting can be terrifying if you don’t know to watch out for it. One of the things I wish I knew before moving to the Bay Area, lane splitting happens when motorcycles pass other vehicles on the road by traveling in between lanes. It most commonly occurs in traffic, so think twice before hastily switching lanes without looking (which, P.S., is never a good idea).
Rule 2: Never Expect Blinkers
As annoying as this one is, Californians tend to see blinkers as optional, so you’ll need to pay extra attention while driving—and always assume someone is going to come into your lane or turn without notice.
Rule 3: Don’t Block Right Turn Lanes
Drivers will use any means necessary to turn right at a red light. This one is no joke; I’ve even seen people drive on the sidewalk to avoid sitting at a red light for 30 seconds. So, if you drive straight through a light and partially block the right turn lane, it’s important that you do your part and scooch over toward the divider to make it easier for people to pass. And if you’re turning right at a red light, stop first, ensure that it’s clear, and make your turn so you don’t get honked at.
Rule 4: Honking is (Almost) Always Negative
In California, we don’t honk to say “thank you;” we honk because we’re upset. Don’t turn left as soon as the light turns green? Other drivers will honk at you. Didn’t move up when traffic started to flow? They’ll honk again. Not moving over when someone wants to drive faster? Well, you get the point. Unless you’re expecting a friend to stop by your house, chances are if you hear honking, someone’s not happy.
Rule 5: Always Know Where You’re Going
Particularly on freeways, you need to know where you’re going before you can see the exit sign. Google Maps is an incredible resource, so please use it. And, for the sake of everyone around you, don’t attempt to cross over four lanes at once to make your exit; just take the next one. If you get lost, have your passenger take over navigating, or pull over and figure it out. Don’t be risky.
Rule 6: Learn How to Zipper
Unless you’re in L.A., the zipper rule is a common courtesy. When merging, the two lanes take turns letting one car in. This is incredibly efficient, so don’t be greedy or you’ll get honked at (see rule 4) and make the traffic slower.
Rule 7: Pay Attention to the Flow of Traffic
Speaking of traffic: Much like rule 5, this last rule is for your safety. The posted speed limit only means so much in California. While you always run the risk of getting a ticket when you drive over the speed limit, it’s dangerous to move slower than all the traffic around you. If you’re really uncomfortable, drive in the right-most lane and continue going the speed limit (but expect big rigs to pass you up on the left).
Now that you’re up to date on California’s driving rules, it’s time to drive to Big Sur, plan a trip to South Lake Tahoe, or cruise down to Santa Monica—but make sure to come to a complete stop at signs, because the “California stop” isn’t even legal here.
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