One glimpse at a New York highway map, and you'll see that the Empire State is veined with interstates from Riverhead in eastern Long Island to Ripley, the state's westernmost town, 500 miles away. These well-maintained highways make driving between regions of New York relatively fast, safe, and easy, although you'll, of course, encounter traffic congestion around major cities. And driving within New York City's boundaries is a whole different ball game.
More than asphalt and exit signs, New York's roads—particularly the more scenic secondary byways—have borne witness to history. By 1825, long before anyone dreamed of driving an automobile, New York State already had 4,000 miles of roads. As you read these tips for navigating New York from behind the wheel, keep in mind that no state has more roadside historical markers. So, the best advice of all is to slow down, stay alert, and pull over now and then to learn about those who have driven this way before and how they shaped New York and the nation.
Rules of the Road
In New York, you can put on a mix of city, country, and highway miles. The state is known for and rightfully proud of its 570-mile Governor Thomas E. Dewey New York State Thruway System: one of the country's most-used toll roads. In New York City, you're best off leaving the driving to experienced taxi drivers, but once you jump on one of the highways or parkways out of NYC, you should have no major difficulties if you're an experienced motorist familiar with driving in other areas of the U.S.
Here are some specifics to know before your New York State road trip.
- Toll roads: There are three toll roads in New York State: A 14-mile stretch of I-95 that enters New York from Connecticut; the 24-mile Berkshire Connector (I-90) that connects the Thruway to the Massachusetts Turnpike; and, most significantly, the majority (496 miles) of the New York State Thruway (I-87). An E‑ZPass transponder is your best friend if you'll be driving these toll roads with any frequency. Cashless toll collection has been instituted on the Thruway, which means you'll be billed by mail (and pay a little more) if you do not have an E-ZPass device. The Tolls NY app can help you track tolls and manage payments, even without an E-ZPass account. The toll-free phone number for E-ZPass inquiries is 800-333-TOLL.
- Traffic Cams: More than 2,000 web cameras monitor traffic and conditions on New York's roadways. This guide will help you zoom right to cameras positioned along the New York State Thruway.
- Speed Limits: Along most of the New York State Thruway, you can drive New York's maximum speed of 65 mph. There is no minimum speed limit, but drivers traveling slower than 40 mph are advised to use their flashers. Elsewhere in the state, obey posted speed limits. Unless posted otherwise, the speed limit in New York City is 25 mph.
- Cell phones: While operating a vehicle in New York State, it is against the law to talk on a hand-held device; to text; to take, view, or send photos; and to play games. First-time violators are subject to a fine of up to $200 and also have points added to their driver's licenses. An exception is made for 911 and other emergency calls.
- Headphones: In New York, you can be fined or even do jail time for driving with more than one earphone or earbud connected to an audio device.
- Seat belts: All front-seat passengers and backseat passengers under the age of 16 must wear seat belts.
- Car seats: If you are driving with children, it is important to review New York's car seat requirements, which may differ from your home state. Some basics to know: Infants must be in rear-facing car seats until age 2; children up to age 8 must use a child safety or booster seat that meets the manufacturer's size and weight recommendations. Children may not ride in the front passenger seat of a vehicle until they are 13.
- Smoking: In western New York's Schenectady, Rockland, and Erie counties, it is illegal to smoke inside your car if you have a passenger under 18.
- Driving while under the influence: Penalties are stiff in New York State for alcohol- and drug-related driving violations. There is a Zero Tolerance Law in effect for drivers under the age of 21. Operators of commercial vehicles are held to even stricter standards. The legal blood alcohol limit is 0.08 percent. Allowing someone who has not been drinking to do the driving is the best way to ensure not only compliance with the law but your own and others' safety. Note also that open containers of alcohol are illegal while driving a motor vehicle.
- Littering: New York imposes penalties of up to $350 for first littering offenses.
- Roundabouts: You may encounter roundabouts in place of traditional intersections in New York, so if you're unfamiliar with this driving pattern, you may want to read these guidelines. Be sure to yield to oncoming traffic as you enter a roundabout, drive slowly, and watch for merging vehicles.
- Carpool/HOV lanes: Although they are not common in New York State, you will find HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes in New York City and, most notably, on the Long Island Expressway (LIE). Motorists must follow posted rules regarding the number of required passengers, hours of operation, and access for specific types of vehicles.
- In case of an emergency: Dial 911 immediately. In New York City, texting 911 is an option if you are unable to call. For Thruway emergencies, including if your vehicle is disabled, you may also call 800-842-2233.
Winter Weather and Road Conditions in New York
New York State's Safe Winter Driving campaign has its own catchy hashtag: #DontCrowdThePlow. Giving snowplow trucks space to do their important road-clearing work is just one of the things you should keep in mind when driving in icy or snowy weather on New York's roads. Dial back your speed, make sure your headlights are on, and allow more following distance behind other vehicles: not just snowplows.
It's a good idea to check for winter travel advisories before leaving home. If you are traveling a distance in harsh conditions, make sure you have emergency items on board, including blankets (a space blanket is smart), snacks, water, a shovel, flares, jumper cables, and sand or cat litter for traction. Winter driving in the Adirondacks and Catskills can be particularly tricky, and you may want to consider a set of tire chains: They can be invaluable when used properly on slick roads. If you have to pull over or park and are concerned about being snowed or plowed in, try to position your car with tires pointed downhill and out.
Should You Rent a Car in New York?
In New York City? No. Cabs, ride services, and public transportation options are plentiful, and driving city streets is anxiety-inducing for the inexperienced. However, outside the city, a car will offer maximum flexibility and ease of travel while also allowing you to avoid long stretches in proximity to others in an enclosed bus or train.
Parking in New York
You'll pay to park in lots or garages in large New York cities, and you may encounter metered street parking in cities and even in smaller downtowns. Many meters may be "fed" via apps or credit cards rather than coins. Along the New York State Thruway, there are more than 30 free Park and Ride Lots, which are primarily for carpooling commuters. You may only park for a maximum of 16 hours in one of these lots without risking having your car towed at your own expense.
Be wary of emails or text messages purportedly from the New York Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), as phishing/smishing scams have been reported.