New York The Empire State

Next in our Unique Rules of the Road series: New York! Remember, while most driving regulations are consistent from state to state, there ARE differences. Read on to learn more about driving in the Empire State.

The state of New York has quite a few of these unique rules of the road. New York ranks 30th among the 50 states in land area (47,224 square miles), but it has the fourth largest population (around 20 million people). It also boasts a vehicle fleet of more than 10 million motor vehicles, all registered to operate on its roads in 2017, the most recent year for which this information is available.

New York is home to two completely different driving environments. There is the densely-populated New York City metropolitan area, which is extremely congested, with terrible traffic and millions of people crammed tightly together. Then there is sparsely-populated upstate New York, with lots of forests and farmland, plenty of room on its roads, and a few medium-sized cities that are spread across the countryside.

Let’s take a look at some of the unique rules of the road in New York, the Empire State:

Cell phone usage in the car: New York has made it illegal to use a cell phone inside the car without a hands-free device, unless you are activating, beginning, or ending a call. It is also illegal to send or receive text messages or e-mails while driving. Calls made for emergency situations are exempted.

Seatbelt use: It is illegal to drive without using a seatbelt yourself, or without all occupants being belted in or in a proper child seat/restraint device. A police officer can pull you over and issue a ticket if you or a passenger is not wearing a seatbelt. Taxis, livery vehicles, emergency vehicles, and non-school buses are exempt.

Passing on the right: This is legal, when it is safe, when the car ahead makes a left turn, when there is a lane or enough road width where you can do so and see clearly, when upcoming intersections are clear, and when it is not prohibited.

Helmets for motorcycle riders: Motorcyclists must wear approved helmets, as well as goggles or a face shield for eye protection.

Use of headlights: Your headlights should be turned on 30 minutes after sunset, and also used until 30 minutes prior to the sunrise. If you are using your wipers because of the weather, your low beams should also be on. You are required to use your headlights if it’s foggy, to help other cars see you. Daytime running lights do not qualify as headlights in New York.

Making turns on red: You may turn right at a red light after stopping and checking for other vehicles and pedestrians, unless it is prohibited. It is prohibited in cities with a population of over one million unless a sign permits it (this includes New York City).

Left turns on a red light can be made only from a one-way street and onto a one-way street, after a full stop has been made, and right-of-way has been yielded to oncoming traffic and pedestrians.

U-turns: U-turns can only be made from the left part of the lane that is closest to the centerline of the road, if you have a green left-turn arrow, yield to other traffic, and a U-turn is not prohibited by signage. U-turns are never allowed in these situations:

  • Near a hilltop, a curve or anywhere other drivers can’t see your vehicle from 500 feet away in both directions
  • In New York City business districts
  • On a limited access expressway
  • In a school zone
  • Where prohibited by signage

Pedestrians: Pedestrians (and skateboarders) who are legally crossing the road or street at marked or unmarked crossings, like intersections, always have the right-of-way.  You must slow down or stop and let them cross.

Driving under the influence of alcohol: It’s not worth it! New York has very severe penalties, and they are enforced! A blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05% is legal evidence that you are impaired, a BAC of 0.08% or more is evidence of intoxication, and a BAC of 0.18 percent or higher is evidence of aggravated driving while intoxicated. Any driver under 21 found with any measurable BAC will face a license suspension and civil fines.

Smoking marijuana: In New York State, you can be arrested for driving while ability impaired by a drug, as well as driving under the combined influence of alcohol and drugs. Don’t do it!

Bicycles: The rules of the road apply to bicyclists. You must yield the right-of-way to them just as you would to another vehicle. Bicyclists must also obey the rules of the road just as motor vehicle drivers are required to.

Smoking in a car: In Rockland, Schenectady, and Erie Counties, if any children are with you (aged less than 18), it is illegal to smoke inside the car.

Minimum following distance: There must be at least two seconds of space between you and the car ahead, whatever legal speed you are going.

Speed limits: There are some general rules for speed limits in the state of New York. These will apply, unless posted signage indicates a different limit:

School zone                                                                            20 to 30 mph, as posted

State speed limit                                                                    55 mph unless otherwise posted

Controlled access highways                                                 65 mph where permitted

Trucks on I-95                                                                       50 mph

New York City                                                                        25 mph unless otherwise posted

Some crazy New York driving regulations

Let’s wrap up with some wacky rules that the state and specific New York localities have put on the books. Some might be based in past experience and may be practical, but others just leave you scratching your head:

State of New York: You may not ride a horse on a road at night.

Sag Harbor: It is illegal to get undressed in your car.

State of New York: You may not sell ice cream from a moving ice cream truck.

State of New York: You are not allowed to warm up your car unless you are in it.

Drive safely in New York!

If you’re thinking about buying a new car, download our Car Buyers Checklist to help guide your process: