There’s always a but, and in major California cities like San Diego, that but is usually related to cars — driving them in traffic, getting lost in them, finding somewhere to park them, entrusting them to valets, crashing them, watching out for other people operating them.
But as they are a must for many people who want to make the most out of their vacation in a county larger than two states (Delaware and Rhode Island), this guide aims to provide insight into local rules of the road, Southern California drivers styles, traffic, and more in order to ensure a smooth ride.
Rules of the Road
All the same basic regulations that govern driving in the U.S. apply to cruising around San Diego by car. But before getting behind the wheel, drivers should acquaint themselves with some added California laws that might score them tickets and big fines if not obeyed. California cops are particularly strict about cell phone usage, littering, and driving under the influence of alcohol or marijuana.
• Cell phones: Drivers are not allowed to talk, text, read messages, email, or anything on their phones while driving unless using a hands-free set-up. Under distracted driving laws, you can be ticketed for simply holding your phone in your hand even if it was to look at Google Maps. To avoid temptation, bring something that attaches your phone to the dash, window, or vents.Anyone under 18 cannot use the phone while driving even if with hands-free tech.Exceptions are made for emergency calls.
• Carpool/HOV lanes: On some freeways, lanes at the far left are designated as High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes with signs and white diamonds painted on the asphalt. Most often there needs to be two humans in the car to be able to use them although there are a few that require three or more passengers. Drivers are only allowed to enter or exit carpool lanes in designated sections. You can get a very expensive ticket for crossing an unbroken yellow or white line. Busy on-ramps occasionally also have designated HOV lanes and often don’t force cars in said lanes to stop when the lights metering merging are on. However a few do so look to a posted sign for guidance. There are also a few freeway overpasses that have designated carpool lanes when changing freeways. Towed trailers are not allowed in these lanes at any time. California Highway Patrol (C.H.P.) take these laws very seriously.
• Toll roads: Some carpool lanes are double-purposed as toll roads, which can be used as by single drivers for a price. Many of these require a FasTrak transponder as there are no longer toll takers in most booths. To use those sections, even when there two people in the car, your car also needs the monitoring device. Some rental car companies provide them. In San Diego, there is only one toll road. The South Bay Expressway, AKA State Route 125, allows drivers to skip traffic when commuting between Chula Vista and the Mexican border and downtown, Santee, Sorrento Valley, and Otay Mesa. It can also be a shortcut to the I-8 and the I-15 freeways.
• Right on red: Unless otherwise stated on a sign, drivers can make right turns on red lights after first stopping and ensuring it is clear.
• Child passengers: In California, children under the age of 8 and under 4 feet 9 inches tall must be properly secured in a child safety seat in the back seat. Children under 2 must have a rear-facing restraining system unless they weigh more than 40 pounds or are more than 40 inches tall. Everyone else including adults must wear a seatbelt.
• Teen drivers: Licensed 16 year olds cannot transport anyone under 20 without a 25-or-older driver in the car. They also can’t drive between 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.
• Smoking: It is against the law to smoke in a car with a minor in it.
• Littering: There is a $1000 fine in California for throwing litter, especially smoldering cigarette butts, from a vehicle. With all of the recent wildfires, cops have become very gung-ho about this infraction.
• Lane splitting:Motorcycles can legally split lanes (drive in between lanes and cars). Given the traffic, most cyclists take advantage of this perk so stay frosty.
• Alcohol:Driving under the influence (DUI) is taken seriously in and sobriety checkpoints spring up often in popular nightlife areas. The legal blood alcohol limit is 0.08%; anything higher and you’ll be immediately arrested. High driving is also impaired driving. You can also earn a DUI by operating the rentable electric scooters that you will see strewn all over town or by riding a bike under the influence. Driving (or sitting) with opened alcohol in the passenger area of the car, including the glove compartment, is also against the law. Any opened container of alcohol has to be transported in the trunk.
• In case of an emergency: If you have one, call 911 from any phone 24 hours a day. C.H.P. defines an emergency as reporting an accident, fire, major road hazard, a crime, or an unsafe driver. Be prepared to provide your name, location as exact as possible, and a description of the situation and people involved including license plates, car types, or injuries. To talk to someone about a non-emergency, call 1-800-TELL-CHP (1-800-835-5247).
Gridlock isn’t quite as bad in San Diego as it is in Los Angeles or the Bay Area, but the city is not without congestion problems. Rush hour is a misnomer because it lasts much longer than 60 minutes. Be aware that traffic, especially on freeways and roads that feed into downtown in the morning and away from it at night, gets jammed up from 7 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. And Friday nights, especially on the I-5 from Carlsbad to downtown, are a free for all between locals going home from work and out to play and visitors driving into town from LA and Orange County. Download Waze if you haven’t. The app can be very helpful in finding alternate and faster routes and alerting drivers to accidents and construction.
Locals drive aggressively in all major California cities. (Remember the freeway scene in Clueless?) They weave in and out of lanes, brake suddenly, honk on a dime, cut people off, pass on all sides willie-nillie, and fill all available space between bumpers. If you prefer to drive slowly, stick to the farthest right lane although know the flow is disrupted by other cars entering and exiting freeways in that lane.
Parking In San Diego
As with most big cities, the availability of parking, especially of the free variety, is a mixed bag. You might roll up and find an open stall immediately or you might spend 20 minutes circling blocks. It often depends where in the city you are. Obviously, downtown and popular hangout neighborhoods like Little Italy or University Heights are the hardest places to find free or even street parking. But some areas frequented by tourists like Balboa Park and or Coronado Beach are surprisingly lousy with it.
When you are lucky enough to find a spot, be cautious and read all the posted signage carefully. (They can be insanely complicated.) If something seems to good to be true, many times that’s because it is and parking enforcement officers are ruthless. Even being towed is on the table depending on what the infraction is. Parking laws surrounding meters, no parking hours or days, colored curbs, street sweeping hours, and residential permits, and disabled parking are strictly enforced in San Diego, colored curbs. Sometimes it’s better not to chance it and just valet or park in a lot. This handy online map by SpotAngels shows what’s available in different neighborhoods.
In California, disabled people with displayed legal handicap placards can park without charge next to blue curbs, green curbs (for no more than 72 consecutive hours), and at street meters. They are responsible for paying the fee for stalls within public and private lots and garages.
Renting a Car
Should you or shouldn’t you? It really depends on how comfortable you feel about city driving and what your vacation plans are. If you want to explore La Jolla, go apple picking in Julian, or tasting at breweries on the far edges of town, a car is a good idea. It can provide flexibility if you want to hop all over town or have a lot to haul to the beach. If you are happy to spend most of your time wandering around downtown (which is extremely walkable) with only a few excursions farther afield to the zoo or Old Town, you can use ample public transportation like the trolley or bus, bike or scooter share, taxis, or rideshare companies like Lyft and Uber. Remember that most hotels charge between $25 and $50 a night to park which quickly adds up.