What are the basic driving rules everyone should know?

While driving laws vary from state to state, driving etiquette is nearly universal. The basic rules of the road include giving other drivers space, using your turn signal, avoiding excessive honking, and more. Following these tips is good traffic etiquette and essential to getting to your destination safely.

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Driving rules and road etiquette

1. Give others on the road their space

Tailgating is never a good idea. But that's just the start of space considerations when you're driving. Whenever possible, give motorcycles as much space as possible, as their movements can be unpredictable. The same goes for bicyclists. Even if there's a bike lane present, it's best to be prepared yourself for sudden swerves.

With semis and tractor-trailer trucks, it's more than just good driver etiquette to leave a lot of space when you pass them. They need much more room to slow down than the average car does. And finally, when it comes to emergency vehicles needing to get past you, give them as much space to pass as you safely can and as soon as you can do it. Slow down and pull over, if possible, to let them by. Learn more about how to avoid tailgating.

2. Change lanes safely

If a car is trying to pass you, don't speed up to cut them off. There's no need to turn it into a race suddenly. If you're the passing car, use your turn signal to alert drivers behind you of your intentions. An unexpected move is more likely to lead to an accident.

Move over smoothly, pass, give some room, and then get back in your previous lane. But don't try to pass if you're barely going faster than the car in front of you. You may impede the flow of other, faster traffic. And, of course, only pass on the left. Learn about how speeding tickets affect insurance.

3. Merge appropriately

When a lane reduces traffic, the classic zipper-style merge — one car from the left, then one from the right, and so on — is good driving courtesy. It is also a safe and efficient way to merge. And while you're at it, it's especially nice to give a wave to the person who let you in.

When you're merging into the flow of traffic, make sure you're doing it at a high enough speed that someone coming up behind you won't have to slam on their brakes to avoid rear-ending you. And when you're in the traffic flow and see people wanting to merge into it, be mindful of cars jumping in at too slow a pace. You may need to change your speed to accommodate them, or you might want to consider moving over a lane, briefly, until the merging queue is behind you.

4. Use caution in parking lots

People are popping out of parking spaces all the time, sometimes without bothering to look around, other times popping out from behind larger cars. Drive slowly in parking lots and watch out for cars making sudden moves. And when you park, it's courteous to use a spot that's suited for your car. For example, don't wedge an SUV into a space marked for compact cars.

Pro tip:

A hand-wave to the driver behind you, who allowed you to merge into the flow of traffic, is a simple yet powerful bit of driving courtesy.

5. Gas up first

Two simple rules govern good behavior at the gas station. The first is, don't leave your car while gassing up. If you do and it finishes before you get back, you'll make others wait longer than needed for their turn to fill up (it can also be dangerous). The second rule is to move your car away from the pump after you've gassed up if you're going into the station's store so others can get their turn at the pump as soon as possible.

6. Use your headlights effectively

It's never a bad idea to turn your lights on in less-than-ideal driving conditions. Your car is much easier to see in the rain with its lights on. However, you'll only want to use your fog lamps in actual foggy conditions. And it's good road etiquette to turn your high beams off if you're within a few hundred feet of another car in front for you, going in either direction. (In fact, some states have a "failure to dim" law that requires it.)

A flash of your headlights can also warn drivers going the opposite way about conditions up ahead. Is there an unexpected slowdown around a curve that they won't see until they're practically on top of it? Or is there a speed trap, or even wild animals like deer or moose in the roadway? A couple of headlight pulses can tell a driver to prepare themselves for something unusual nearby. Learn more about if insurance covers hitting a deer and how to avoid hitting a deer.

7. Minimize distractions

In some cases, being distracted is comparatively harmless. For example, when you don't realize the light has turned green and cars are stacking up behind you. That's just bad traffic etiquette. In other cases, being distracted can be dangerous and may cause accidents, injuries, or even fatalities on the road. Keeping your mind and attention on driving is not only polite but also the safest way to behave when you're behind the wheel. Learn more about distracted driving and insurance.

8. Avoid angry reactions

Quickly escalating anger aimed at a driving error or rude maneuver can turn into "road rage." Angry reactions occur when a driver is cut off, makes a turn from the wrong lane, or gets stuck at a stoplight they think they should have cleared. Part of disciplined driving is being the bigger person and letting the anger pass without acting on it.

9. Follow the speed limit

Simply put: don’t drive too fast, or too slow. The speed limit signs are there for a reason — that's how fast you're supposed to drive under normal conditions. Driving too fast can be dangerous, not to mention illegal. But driving too slowly can also be dangerous, as it may cause frustration in the drivers around you. And that frustration can lead to mistakes or impulsive acts, which increases the potential for an accident.

10. Use your horn in the right situations

Using the horn can be very tempting. You've undoubtedly experienced a traffic jam where someone, in their frustration and helplessness, pounded on their horn or just leaned on it for what seemed like forever. But it doesn't get anyone anywhere except angry.

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