For some newcomers, driving in Houston can be a little overwhelming. Setting aside the sheer size of the nation's fourth-largest city, many visitors or recent transplants are taken off-guard by Houston's aggressive driving culture and unique vehicular vernacular. Whether you've been in the city for a day or a decade, here are some tips to help you navigate Houston swiftly and safely.
Rules of the Road
While most of the driving laws in Houston are relatively similar to those found in the rest of the United States, there are a few subtle differences to driving in Houston. From learning to merge onto feeder roads to avoid tolls to knowing how to avoid aggressive drivers, these safety tips and guidelines will go a long way to helping new drivers safely navigate the streets, highways, and feeder roads of Houston.
- Texting and Driving: Texas made texting and driving illegal in August of 2017, but devices used for navigation and music control do not count as distracted driving. However, infractions for texting and driving are punishable by a fine of $25 to $99.
- Driving Under the Influence: It is illegal to operate a vehicle with a .08 percent or above blood alcohol concentration (BAC) in Texas, but for commercial drivers, the limit is .04 percent. First-time offenders are arrested and fined up to $2,000 and get their driver's license revoked for 90 or more days.
- Speed Limits: The maximum speed for roadways in Houston varies by road type. Highways and freeways usually have speed limits of 65 to 75 miles per hour while Farm to Market and feeder roads usually have speed limits of 55 to 65 miles per hour. Meanwhile, residential streets typically enforce a maximum speed of between 30 and 45 miles per hour.
- Headlights: Texas requires headlights to be used when visibility is under 1,000 feet, so drivers should get in the practice of turning their lights on at dusk, dawn, and overnight—even when driving on well-lit streets.
- Passing Lane: On roads with two or more lanes, the lane furthest to the left is known as the "passing lane," which should only be used to pass other vehicles. Those driving under the speed limit should use the right lane unless overtaking a slower vehicle.
- Lane Splitting: While some states allow motorcyclists to drive in the middle of two lanes to bypass traffic, Texas law forbids lane splitting.
- Car Seats: Children under the age of 8 years old or shorter than four feet, nine inches are required to be secured in a child passenger safety seat system during the operation of the vehicle.
- Littering: It is against the law to throw anything out of your vehicle while driving, and littering can carry a fine of up to $500 for the first offense in Texas.
- Right on Red and U-Turns: Unless specifically noted by signs at traffic lights turning right on red is legal in most of Houston—as is making a U-turn at most intersections.
Learn the Highways' Nicknames
If you’re coming from a city or country that refers to roadways by numbers and cardinal directions like Interstate 35 North, you might be in for a rude awakening when asking for directions in Houston.
Most of the major highways in Houston have nicknames, and sometimes those names differ, depending on what part of the freeway you are referring to. It can get confusing—especially when the name includes a cardinal direction, such as “Eastbound South Loop West," which is a real thing here in Houston. Other common names for major roadways include:
- Katy Freeway: The portion of I-10 that is west of I-45
- Baytown East Freeway: The portion of I-10 that is east of I-45
- Southwest Freeway: The part of US 59 that is south of I-45
- Eastex Freeway: The part of US 59 that is north of I-45
- 610 Loop or Inner Loop: Another name for I-610, which is further broken up into stretches depending on the geographic location—for example, North Loop is the portion between Highway 290 and Highway 90 just north of downtown while North Loop West is the portion between 290 and I-45
- Sam Houston Parkway: The feeder road for State Highway Beltway 8
- Sam Houston Tollway: the main road of State Highway Beltway 8, also known as the Outer Loop
Know the Deal With Feeder Roads
Most exits off of Houston’s highways will dump you onto what are known as “feeder roads.” These slower-speed side roads parallel the major roadway and provide easy on-off access to the highway as well as to the smaller cross streets. In other cities they might be called “frontage roads” or “service roads,” but those are typically two-way, two-lane roads, whereas a feeder road is a true one-way thoroughfare with multiple lanes.
There are a few things to keep in mind when driving on these special roadways. For starters, you will want to plan your exit early to avoid merging across multiple lanes of traffic to make a right turn from the feeder. Since it's not uncommon for a feeder road in Houston to have four lanes and since exiting the highway leaves you in the far left lane, you'll want to plan to exit earlier so that you have enough time to merge into the right lane before your turn.
However, even if you exit the highway at the appropriate time, your GPS might still think you are on the highway when you merge onto a feeder road. Be sure to look ahead in your directions so that you don't miss your turn. Additionally, when approaching a stoplight while on the feeder, you might notice two or three turn lanes; the far left lane is almost always a U-turn lane and is handy if you need to get back on the feeder going in the opposite direction.
Get an EZ Tag
It can be challenging to get anywhere in the city without using one of Houston’s toll roads, but getting an EZ Tag is a good way to ensure you don’t get delayed or left fishing through your cup holders for change.
The EZ Tag is a sticker with a chip embedded that talks with the tolling station every time you pass through, and the amount of the toll is then deducted from a pre-paid account. For a local, the EZ Tag is a must: not only does it allow you to use the much quicker EZ Tag-only lanes on toll roads, but also some tollways, like the Westpark Tollway and Katy Tollway, only accept payments via EZ Tag. Some other important things to know about EZ Tags include:
- You can request an EZ Tag online at the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) website, by phone (281-875-3279), or by going to a brick-and-mortar EZ Tag store.
- The first three tags are $15 each, and every tag thereafter is $10. A minimum pre-paid deposit of $40 is required.
- You can set your account so that it is linked to a bank or credit card account to be reloaded automatically with a predetermined amount when the balance gets low, or you can sign up for a BancPass EZ Tag, and rather than automatically reloading, you are notified when the balance is low. If you want to reload, you can do so by going to an H-E-B or CVS or by going online.
- The EZ Tag is compatible with Texas Department of Transportation's TxTag (used in Austin) and the North Texas Toll Authority (NTTA) TollTag (used in Dallas), so if you are traveling to those cities, you can use their tag-only lanes just like here in Houston.
Watch the Weather
Adjusting your speed and heightening your awareness of other drivers is just good practice—regardless of what the weather is like. However, Houston has some particular challenges when it comes to torrential rain, weather delays, and road closures from flooding. Here are some important things to keep in mind when driving in inclement weather in Houston:
- Look out for flooding: When it rains a lot in a short period of time, water can pool on the feeders, on/off ramps, and even on stretches of the freeway itself. Additionally, it can sometimes be difficult to tell how deep the water is. If you don’t know, don’t risk it. If you can’t maneuver around the flooded area, turn around (if possible) or pullover, and call for help.
- Be prepared for delays: On the best of days, there are often accidents that hold up traffic, especially on already-clogged roads like Highway 290. When the weather gets rough, however, you can bank on needing extra time for your commute.
- Watch out for reckless drivers: Even in inclement weather, many drivers don’t lower their speed or tone down aggressive driving maneuvers. Give yourself (and them) plenty of room, and be sure to lower your own speed to drive defensively in the rain.
Take a Defensive Driving Class
Aggressive driving is certainly not unique to Houstonians, but they do make an art of it. It’s not unusual for individuals to forgo using their turn signals for fear that doing so will only cause other drivers to speed up and block them from merging. Similarly, it’s fairly commonplace to witness drivers force their way into or out of an exit-only lane because they waited until the absolute last second to merge.
Having a little training in defensive driving tactics could help you react more safely to your fellow drivers, and if you get a traffic ticket in Houston, a defensive driving class could help get it dismissed. A number of locations throughout the city offer online and in-person courses. You can find one near you by visiting defensivedriving.org. A few helpful tips include:
- Merge early: Many high-traffic interchanges throughout the city have near-perpetual quarter-mile gridlock, which can extend back farther than the exit signs. Don’t be “that guy” merging in at the last minute, and instead, you should merge into the exit lane as soon as possible to avoid any accidents.
- Check for tailgaters: Try to get into the habit of checking your rear-view mirror for tailgaters before hitting the brakes. Many Houstonians consider half-second following distances to be the norm or will tailgate purely to keep others from merging in front of them. As a result, you should be extra cautious to avoid slamming on your brakes and causing a rear-end collision.
- Watch for distracted drivers: Bored commuters and cell phone users can be especially dangerous in traffic. Keep your eyes out for drivers drifting or weaving in their lanes or for those who aren't paying full attention to the road around them, and be ready to use your horn if someone weaves into your lane because they are distracted.
Budget Plenty of Time—Then Double It
Houston is huge: the eight-county metropolitan area covers 8,778 square miles— an area bigger than the state of New Jersey. The 610 Loop alone is 42 miles long, and Beltway 8 is 88 miles long, so it may come as no surprise that getting places in Houston can take a considerable amount of time. Some things to consider when calculating how much time you’ll need:
- A few minutes can make a world of difference: Leaving at 4:55 p.m. could shave 20 minutes off your drive time if it means you can get out onto the freeway before the masses get out of work during rush hour; because of this, many Houstonians opt for alternative work schedules—going in early or leaving late—so that they can avoid the worst of the traffic.
- All directions have a rush hour: Even though going against traffic is often less awful, you can still expect delays during rush hour, especially at major interchanges like at I-10 and I-45 or at US-59 and I-45—whichever direction you're heading.
- Add 15 minutes to your estimate: However long you think it will take to get somewhere, it will probably take longer. Even if you estimate your drive time using a GPS, you never know what delays might pop up en route, so it's best to add 15 minutes to your arrival estimate to be on the safe side and avoid speeding to be on time for your reservation, date, or appointment.
- Beware of stoplights on side streets: You might be able to zip a few miles down the freeway in a matter of minutes, but if you need to venture into the side streets of Montrose or the Heights, be prepared to account for long waiting times at stoplights.
Lastly, Don't Forget "The Wave"
Houstonians might often be aggressive or impatient on the road, but they aren't rude. If another driver lets you merge in front of them, it is customary to acknowledge their generosity with a friendly wave of the hand and a smile in the rearview mirror. After all, Houston might be a big city, but Southern Hospitality rules still apply.