Road Law differences in the UK and US

From driving on the right hand side to gaining a motoring permit at 14 years old, road laws in America and the UK may shock drivers who are not used to them when travelling abroad..

The car rental experts at are offering insights into some of the many differences there are between the UK and US regulations. With many American driving laws set at the state level, the country’s road laws differ greatly depending on what state you are in.

A spokesperson from said: “Coming to grips with the rules of the road in different countries can be difficult for many motorists universally.

“However, once drivers have got to grips with the driving laws in their own country, it can be fascinating to learn about how these laws differ to other countries. 

“The county’s individual driving laws highlight differences in allowances for handheld devices, seatbelts and the age that motorists can gain access to a driver’s license.”

Driving law differences
Driving law differences

Side of the Road Difference for Road Laws in US and UK

Potentially, the most well-known difference between US and UK road rules is the side of the road people drive on, with the UK designated to the left side and Americans on the right.

The rule for UK motorists to drive on the left side of the road has origins in the Middle Ages and was once linked to those travelling on horseback. Whilst in the US, drivers have been restricted to the right side of the road since 1804, when New York became the first state to regulate right hand travel on all roads.

Driving in a different country can be shocking. Here are the main differences you should know when driving in the United States vs the United Kingdom.

Use of a Handheld Device 

UK laws deem it illegal to use a handheld device whilst driving a car or motorcycle. Instead, drivers must utilise hands free devices, with any windshield or dashboard mounts in no way obstructing the driver’s view of the road. 

However, the rules of the road in America regarding handheld devices are different depending on the state. In most states, it is illegal to use a handheld device to text while driving. Other places utilizing this law include Washington DC, the US Virgin Islands, Guam and Puerto Rico.

However, take a trip over to Arizona and South Carolina and you must be using a hands free device. Montana is the only state that doesn’t have a statewide law restricting the use of cell phones while driving in some manner.

Driving with devices
Driving with devices

Seatbelt Difference for Road Laws in US and UK

Members of the public travelling without seatbelts is a huge concern for public safety in the UK. Motorists are urged to understand the severity of the seat belt law.

A recent survey by the West Yorkshire Police showed that Brits aged between 17-34 have the lowest compliance rate combined with the highest accident rate.

UK legislation states that any person in a car over 12 years old or over 135cm tall must be wearing a seat belt at all times. Repercussions for motorists and passengers not following this rule is a fine of up to £500. 

The difference between America’s approach to seatbelt laws has been split into primary enforcement or secondary enforcement laws. Primary enforcement states that a police officer may pull a driver over because they can see the seat belt is not in use.

Secondary enforcement states the driver must first be pulled over for a different offence before the officer is able to cite the driver or passenger for their seat belt use. Motorists are urged to understand the law in any new states they may be driving in to ensure they are not breaking any state laws.

California, Mississippi and New Mexico are among 20 states which apply primary enforcement rules for all occupants in all seats of the vehicle. On the other hand, New Hampshire is the only state that does not require any adults to wear seat belts at all as they do not have legislation in place.

Always drive safely
Always drive safely

Minimum Driving Age 

In the UK, prospective motorists can apply for a provisional license at 15 years and nine months old. They can then go onto obtaining a full license and driving a car at 17 years old.

Once motorists have a provisional license and meet the minimum age limit of 17 they are able to drive with L-plates on all roads except for motorways. With 18 being the minimum age for 78% of countries setting their driving laws, the UK is slightly below the majority.

The American minimum driving age, however, is not quite as generalised across the country. Americans experience minimum age laws set at the state level, with some states allowing motorists to get their permit as young as 14 years old.

The state of South Dakota is the most relaxed when it comes to issuing motorists with restricted licenses. There, teenagers can become permit holders at 14, receive their restricted license at 14 years and six months old and then go onto receive a full license by just 16. 

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  1. Thank you for this list!
    I’m from the UK, currently in the states!

    It’s been a change for sure to get to grips with the different rules, change of side and how it can differ from state to state!

    Thanks for the tips!

    1. We understand completely! We’ve from the US and driving on the opposite side in the UK and Australia is always an adventure. 😉