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6 Driving Safety Tips for Your California Road Trip

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Lately, we’ve been hitting the road a lot. Travel has definitely changed in our house, and Mr. V and I have had some great adventures lately by planning road trips in our home state, California. Many people plan a California road trip each year, from the famous California Coast/Pacific Coast Highway to some of the epic smaller road trips around the state.

(If you need more inspiration, I’ve written about planning road trips from San Francisco, two great Redwoods road trips, and an epic California national parks road trip.)

California Driving Tips Hero

No matter which California road trip you’re planning, you’ll be spending a lot of time on the road. After living in California and adjusting to the, shall we say, unique way people drive here, I’ve put together these driving safety tips to help you have an unforgettable California road trip – in which you drive safely from start to finish.

In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of many First Nations peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.

Tip #1. People Drive Fast in California

California Driving Tips

I’m sure you’ve heard it: California drivers are crazy. After driving here for three years, I can confirm this isn’t false…

We may be laid-back out here on the west coast, but we also enjoy the open spaces and want to get from here to wherever ASAP. Basically, California drivers want to go really fast. To that end, it’s important to understand a couple of different ways you might encounter speedy Californians on the road around you – and how to handle it.

Imagine first that you’re on an eight-lane highway (four each way, such as parts of Interstate 5 that runs through California). Here’s a rough example of what you might encounter in each lane in your direction:

Left Lane2nd Left Lane2nd Right LaneRight Lane
HOV and/or
+15 mph
+5-10 mpgSpeed LimitMerging and/or
-5 mph
(aka chaos)

Based on that, I recommend sticking to the 2nd right lane as much as it makes sense. If you’re not willing to drive above the speed limit, you’ll cause traffic problems in the 2nd left lane or HOV lane. (I cover why I don’t suggest the rightmost lane in tip #4).

On a two-lane highway, you’ll obviously be constrained by the speed of the car in front of you. If a big backlog of cars occurs because someone won’t pull over (more on that in tip #2), people will definitely pass whenever they deem its safe – even if it’s not marked as a dashed yellow line!

Just be ready: California drivers will be moving quickly around you, and it’s best to stick mostly to the right when driving so they can pass you. (If you don’t…)

Tip #2. Tailgating is Common – Here’s How to Handle It

…You’ll end up with someone on your back bumper. (Figuratively, of course – though if you have to brake suddenly, that will also happen literally!)

Tailgating is my least favorite aspect of driving in California. Not only do you have to drive fast, but you also have to do it with a guy right behind you so close that you can read his license plate. So be ready: people will tailgate you in California!

To handle this, here are a couple of tips:

  • Stick to the 2nd right lane as much as you can (more on this in tip #3) – operate as though the “keep right except to pass” rule applies.
  • If you’re on a lane with limited passing opportunities, you are required by law to pull over if there are more than five cars behind you.

I generally try to keep an eye behind me as much as possible if I’m in the left or second-left lanes of any major highway, so I can move back to the right if someone starts to come up behind me. (Because if you don’t…)

Tip #3. You Can Pass on the Right in California

California Driving Tips

…The impatient tailgating California driver will pass you on the right. Which is legal – even though it’s not super safe.

Yes, you read that correctly: it is legal to pass on the right in California. So if you are hanging out in the left lanes and going to slowly, the person will go around you on the right – trapping you into the fast lane. It’s just easier to keep yourself to the right and let those speed demons pass!

If you find yourself behind someone going slowly in a left-ish lane, you too can exercise this right. Just be aware that they may try to change lanes to get out of your way! (Which is what makes this move unsafe. It’s way better to keep right-ish unless you’re passing!)

Tip #4. There are No Yield Signs When Merging

I mentioned that on large highways, there’s a reason I don’t advise sticking in the far right lane. It took me a long time to realize a big difference in the way California roads are marked: there are no yield signs when merging on California highways.

Broadly, this means that the car merging onto the highway will assume you’re going to get out of their way. If you can’t move over to do this, it’s expected you will slow down to let them in. (Honestly, this one makes no sense to me, because I’m already on the road!)

So if a car is merging into where you are, you can either move to the next left lane, or slow down to let them in.

This is why it’s handy to hang out in the second-right lane – you won’t have to deal with moving over to let people merge in, and you’ll be able to comfortably go the speed limit without too many people tailgating you or passing on the right.

Tip #5. California Requires Hands-Free Devices

It’s now a law in a lot of states, but California was one of the first to require hands-free device usage. You can get hefty tickets for texting or talking with your smartphone in your hands. Never mind that it’s dangerous on a lot of California’s best roads, like the Pacific Coast Highway!

Plan ahead to avoid any issues:

  • I always have my Airpods with me, to take calls, listen to podcasts, etc.
  • I wear my Apple Watch a lot, which allows me to glance at notifications without taking my hands off the wheel

A lot of cars also make it easy to pair your phone and receive calls through the audio system, plus screens that show text and email alerts. Set all that up before you start your California road trip and you’ll be fine.

Tip #6. Motorcycles are Allowed to Lane Split

Here’s one last tip as you wrap your head around the speedy, tailgating, right-passing, non-yielding California car drivers you’re about to be sharing the road with: motorcycles are allowed to lane split in California.

This means that a motorcycle can move between vehicles and lanes while passing. They can come up behind you, zip between you and the car next, and carry on. It’s pretty startling, the first time one comes up behind quickly and revs as they pass!

I generally don’t have issues with this except when sitting in stop-and-go traffic (hello, Interstates in big cities like L.A. and San Francisco!) and when changing lanes on those big interstates. Always check to see if a motorcycle is coming up behind you!

California Driving Tips

It might seem scary to drive in California, based on the tips I’ve given – but it’s also helpful to know the nuances of driving in this state before you set out to explore its many wonders. Trust me that millions of people figure it out every year on epic California road trips, and you can too!

Have any questions about driving safety on your California road trip? Let me know in the comments!

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I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.


  • Penny

    Thanks a lot for this article! I’m planning an OTR trip for May and I had read a lot about speed limits and Sheriff’s cars “hiding” behind the bushes so I absolutely wasn’t prepared for “Californians drive fast”. Good to know!

    • Avatar photo


      Police definitely do that – but Californians also scream down the highways whenever they can, which is why the Police do that 😉

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