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Summary

Driving in Orange County is pretty easy, for the most part. With a few insider tips, you'll be navigating our roads like pro in no time.

Planning to drive in Southern California? (Great choice – public transportation here isn’t fabulous.)

Here are a few answers to your questions.

Is driving in Orange County (and Southern California) difficult?

Driving in Orange County is pretty easy in my opinion (opinion, not fact). I grew up here, so bear that in mind, but I still think it would be fairly straightforward for someone new to the area. Because our roads were built to accommodate cars, our lanes are (mostly) wide, providing ample room. The one constant is traffic – and if you’re not accustomed to it, prepare yourself.

Aside from the beach towns, there are few one-way streets. (Contrast that with downtown L.A., where there are quite a few.) There also aren’t a lot of roundabouts, like there are in Europe.

Arguably the scariest places to drive in Southern California are on our freeways – mostly getting on and off. Merging into traffic can be a bit of a Goldilocks challenge, driving neither too fast nor too slow – and, if it’s during a high-traffic time, it depends on whether the people who are in the slow lane at that particular moment are friendly bears or not-so-friendly ones. (Am I taking the Goldilocks metaphor too far?)

What is the best time to drive in LA (and Orange County) to avoid traffic?

While it’s nearly impossible to completely avoid traffic, there are times it’s a bit more tolerable. After 10 a.m. in the morning and before 4 p.m. in the afternoon aren’t quite as bad. And after 7 p.m. at night…not terrible – but it may depend on where you’re headed.

Directional traffic is definitely a thing. You may hear locals say, “Oh, you’re headed in the right direction” (or the opposite). They’re not talking about the compass – they’re talking about the flow of traffic at that particular time of day.

The areas that draw a lot of workers are Irvine and Costa Mesa. In the morning, if you’re headed away from these areas, you might be lucky. (E.g., heading to Orange, north on the 55 in the morning isn’t awful.) The opposite happens in the afternoon.

What time is rush hour in Southern California?

Rush hour throughout Southern California is typically 7 to 9 a.m. and 3:30 to 7:00 p.m. I will share that I was just driving north on the 55 at 2:30 p.m., and traffic was already starting to back up. Give yourself ample time if you’re expecting to get anywhere quickly.

Tips for Driving in California

  1. Don’t Touch Your Mobile Phone While Driving

Don’t pick up your cell phone if you’re driving. Like most states, with the exception of a rebellious few, texting while driving is illegal – but here in California, if you even pick up your cell phone while driving, you’re at risk for a hefty ticket.

2. Watch for No-Turn-On-Red Signs and Intersections

They’re not super common, but they do exist. One prominent example is when you’re exiting the 55 North freeway at Chapman – and you’re heading west toward Old Towne – that exit in particular has a No Turn On Red Sign.

If you’re unsure what I’m talking about – while there’s a red light, if you can safely make a right turn at an intersection, it’s fine. (Except when there’s a sign like the above.)

3. Steer Clear of Pedestrians and Cyclists—Literally

Pedestrians ALWAYS have the right of way (even when they don’t). You have to yield to them, period. Seems obvious, but that’s not the case elsewhere in the world.

Also, as of 2023, by law, you must change to another lane, when possible, when passing a bicyclist. At minimum, you’re required to give them 3 feet (0.9 meters) of space when passing.

4. Do Not Drive SLOWER Than the Speed Limit

I’m not going to tell you to go faster than the posted speed limit – because you can get a ticket if you do – but definitely do not go slower than the flow of traffic. Generally speaking, I simply try to go with the flow of traffic.

5. Pay Attention to Parking Signs

Again, seems obvious, but California is serious about its parking situation. Particularly in congested areas, you’re going to find parking is more restricted. Both street parking as well as parking lots may have certain restrictions in place.