Driving on Oahu

Aerial view of H-3 Interstate highway, Oahu

 Royce Bair/Getty Images

Oahu’s famous combination of city and country makes it one of the most unique places on earth. There aren’t many destinations where one can walk among 400-foot skyscrapers just a few short miles away from lush rainforests and natural waterfalls! Because of this special landscape, it takes an open-minded driver to expertly navigate Oahu’s streets and roads. Luckily, we’ve got all the information you need to be successful whether you’re driving through bustling Waikiki or laid-back Haleiwa.

Traffic on this island is some of the worst in the country, but avoiding rush hours and knowing the appropriate driving etiquette can make a road trip or commute much more enjoyable. Plan extra time for heavy traffic at any time of the day (Google Maps is especially handy), because on Oahu it may take you 45 minutes to travel 10 miles. The Hawaii government website is a useful resource for road closures and transportation updates as well.

Rules of the Road

When it comes to the rules of the road, Oahu follows the same laws as the rest of the United States—with a little extra aloha. Unlike the mainland where drivers can be a bit more aggressive, locals are used to being let in when merging lanes, and you definitely won’t hear people honking their horns as much. There isn’t an endless amount of space (it’s an island after all), which means plenty of one-way roads. Paying close attention to posted street signs is crucial.

  • Parking: Since there is limited parking throughout the island, most street parking spaces have posted regulations, and ignoring these signs will almost always mean a ticket or a tow. Hotels offer parking for their guests (valet averages $35 per day), and there are several paid parking garages available for those visiting an area just for the day. Make sure to find out if the stores and/or restaurants you visit validate parking!
  • Littering: Criminal littering is a petty misdemeanor on Oahu. Littering (including from a vehicle) can incur fines between $500 and $1,000.
  • Speed: The speed limit for most freeways is 60 MPH, and you probably won’t get away with going much over that especially during the day. Go with the flow of traffic.
  • Carpool: Most carpool lanes require two or more people. Oahu utilizes zipper lanes on the H-1 Freeway and Nimitz Highway Express Lane to help ease Honolulu-bound traffic during peak rush hours. There are no toll roads on Oahu.
  • Right-hand turns: Allowed on a red light unless otherwise noted with a traffic sign.
  • Under the Influence: Hawaii uses the same driving limits as the rest of the country. Driving with a BAC of 0.08 or higher is a DUI-punishable offense. It is illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to drive with any measurable amount of alcohol in their system. 
  • Gas: The average cost of gas in Honolulu is about $3.40 per gallon, but it is generally significantly higher in Waikiki. In the center of the island in places like Mililani Town, gas can get as low as $3.20 per gallon. On other islands like Maui and Big Island, gas stations on lengthy remote roads can be sparse, but on Oahu, you won’t have too much trouble finding a gas station.
  • Emergency: The state removed emergency roadside call boxes in 2013, though there are still a few left in operation inside the H-3 tunnels and on the remote west side at Yokohama Bay. In the Honolulu freeway areas with the most traffic, the state offers a free roadside assistance service patrol that can be reached calling 808-841-4357(HELP). Call 9-1-1 for situations requiring immediate assistance.
  • Bicycles: Especially in Honolulu, bicycles are gaining popularity as an alternate mode of transportation on Oahu. Watch out for the light blue Biki bikes; anyone can rent them (and they might not be familiar with the streets).

Street Names

Most street names on Oahu are in Hawaiian. Since there are only 12 letters in the Hawaiian alphabet, it can get tricky for visitors who aren’t familiar with the language. It helps to figure out where you’re going in advance so you don’t get completely lost looking for your next turn.

Safety

Oahu has had a recent uptick in pedestrian accidents, so pay extra attention to crosswalks and bicycle lanes. In the more tourist-heavy areas like Waikiki and neighboring Ala Moana, visitors tend to get lost in their surroundings and try to cross the road without warning. As it should be driving in any place for the first time, added caution at intersections and vigilance while behind the wheel is essential. If you’re worried about becoming distracted at the gorgeous scenery along the way, hire a driver or a tour guide to take you.

Rental Cars

Check with your insurance company or credit card company before you come to Oahu, some mainland insurances won’t be valid with certain models of cars. You may not need a rental car at all, depending on where you stay and where you plan to go. If you prefer staying in Waikiki for your entire trip, a car really isn’t necessary and will just incur expensive parking rates (don’t bank on finding overnight street parking).

Hawaii law requires children under the age of four to ride in a child safety seat, and kids from age four to seven in either a safety or booster seat. US citizens visiting from another state must have a valid driver's license if they are at least 18 years old. Travelers coming from another country must have a valid driver’s license from their home country and be 18 or older.

Some rentals companies will rent to drivers under 25 years old for an additional fee, but not all of them. Renting a car in Waikiki will cost much more than renting at the airport (and can almost double during certain times of the year), so if you want to save money plan ahead for a rental. While GPS devices are allowed, talking on the phone or texting while driving is illegal. Carrying open containers of alcohol in a car (even if they’re empty) is also against the law.

Traffic

Rush hour on Oahu is from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and from 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Construction throughout Hawaii tends to run on “island time,” so be prepared to see plenty of construction blocking the roads even at the most inconvenient times. Sobriety checkpoints are common coming in and out of Waikiki, especially on holidays and special events.

Weather

Watch for weather advisories and remember that the roads are extra slick during the first few minutes of rainfall. The tropical climate in the middle of the Pacific Ocean can be temperamental and come without warning. Potholes can be problematic during poor weather—another good reason to slow down while driving on Oahu. If there is a flood warning, choose the safer option and don’t drive at all.

Public Transportation

Oahu has simple public transportation in TheBus. It is great for getting around Honolulu, though we wouldn’t recommend it for getting to the other sides of the island (it will get you where you need to go but take a long time to get there). Most tours and activities on the island provide transportation options to and from Waikiki as well.

Things to Know:

  • Locals usually use the words makai and mauka when giving directions, with makai meaning towards the ocean and mauka towards the mountains. In Honolulu, you’ll also hear people using “Diamond Head” (toward Diamond Head) and ewa (away from Diamond Head) to give directions as well.
  • Even though the scenery is beautiful, residents still have to get to work and appointments, so remember to check your rearview mirror and pull over to let them pass if necessary.
  • As the third-largest island in the state, Oahu is just over 40 miles long. It is impossible to drive completely around the entire island as the road stops at the westernmost tip at Kaena Point. Is it possible, however, to drive in a loop along the eastern shore and back down through the middle of the island—this is the route that most visitors take to tour the island.
  • Oahu residents are used to politeness on the road—that means throwing a shaka or friendly wave when someone lets you merge onto the freeway or stops for you in an intersection. Even though Oahu is part of the U.S., people tend to drive a little slower than on the mainland.
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