Pink convertible car with woman's legs hanging out wearing pink flip flops

Driving in San Diego: the Ugly Truth

When I first moved here a couple years ago, the roads seemed fairly busy, which I expected since San Diego is a populous city. But the drivers and their habits were what I found completely shocking.

San Diego driving is full of aggression, very high speeds, running red lights, and an overall complacency about road rules and safety. With a large population and high numbers of tourists, careless drivers put everyone at risk.

This isn’t about driving around in the city of San Diego. There’s much more to our driving culture than that. If we did a search for  “San Diego driving” on Google, we’d want to know the full story. So that’s what you’re getting. Buckle Up!

What to watch for when driving in San Diego:

  • Road aggression is rampant in San Diego county.
  • Drivers use excessive speeds on the freeways as well as the backroads.
  • Red-light runners are everywhere in San Diego.
  • Very few drivers use their blinkers.
  • Drivers often cross 3 lanes to make last-minute turns in heavy traffic.
  • The number of distracted drivers in San Diego’s heavy traffic is very scary.
  • Drivers slow excessively at slight curves and hills on San Diego freeways.
  • Rubbernecking adds to quite a bit of slow-down on the freeways as well.
  • San Diego freeways are packed with people driving to LA and Mexico on weekends.

Most dangerous San Diego driving offenses

There are a handful of grievous road sins that could and do cost people their lives. This beginning list represents what we feel are the worst offenses. If you learn nothing else, just be aware of these when you drive here.

  • Excessive freeway speed — some stretches of freeway here rank in the top 20 deadliest. 
  • Consistently running red lights. Some drivers blatantly stop, look both ways, and then proceed. We’ve personally seen this multiple times. 
  • Turning on red arrows. On any given turn arrow, you’d better be prepared that 2-3 additional cars will turn on red. 
  • Aggressive driving is everywhere. Tailgating and not allowing others to merge are both huge problems. 
  • Very few drivers using turn signals. Be ready to stop last-minute for that fool who crosses over every lane from left to right to turn into McDonalds — all without a single signal. 

Now you’ve gotten a small glimpse of the San Diego driving scene.

We promise that there’s plenty to love here. We wouldn’t be the beach bum, sea-loving creatures that we are without this amazing place.

Beauty and good vibes don’t keep people safe, though. So let’s dig into the realities of San Diego driving conditions to build some awareness. Maybe some people will wake up and do better.

police officer stopping man in convertible for speeding while driving in San Diego

San Diego driving issues you’ll encounter on main roads

We’ll get to the freeway in a little bit. Since a good amount of driving is done on main roads, here are the things to watch out for. 

Red light runners 

The worst offense we see on roads that aren’t freeways are red-light runners. They. Are. Everywhere. It’s astounding. 

  • The most surprising ones to see are those that stop at a red light, look both ways, and then keep going as usual. I’ve seen this multiple times. 
  • The scariest are the drivers who barrel through red lights well after it’s turned. And due to the amount of lights here and the level of impatience, it happens A LOT. 
  • If you drive much in San Diego you’ll also get used to 2-3 cars going on left turn signals after it’s turned red. 
  • It feels like we have an astounding number of traffic lights here. Impatience is what drives people in San Diego to run the lights for sure. 

Trying to get to the store? 15 red lights await. A drive to the beach may have 30 or more if you’re not taking the freeway. That’s one of the prices you pay to live in a gorgeous, populous place. 

Inconsiderate and aggressive driving

I’m not sure what’s worse, the red-light runners or drivers who don’t let anyone merge and you run out of road because of it. Aggressive driving is rampant in the San Diego area. In fact, our lovely city ended up in spot #6 in 2019 for cities with the most aggressive driving.

  • If you put your blinker on, sometimes it’s even less likely that another driver will let you over. Most people just dart in and out of lanes with no warning
  • Polite merging is almost non-existent. Be prepared to get into your desired lane WAY ahead of time.
  • Watch out if you’re going “too slow” in front of impatient San Diego drivers. Often you’ll be passed on the right, on a shoulder, or they’ll cut you/others off with terrifyingly little margin for error. 
  • Very few drivers use blinkers. It’s very common for someone to just stop or slow down for “no reason” and then turn. 
  • Prepare to get cut off frequently. Very high-traffic roads such as El Camino Real are particularly bad. It’s a major north-south thoroughfare in North County. Not a bad idea to drive with your hand over your horn on this one. 
  • Watch for e-bike riders everywhere near wealthy areas and beach towns. Affluent kids of all ages have e-bikes here, travel on the main roads, and many don’t even attempt to follow road rules. This includes stopping at lights at times. 
man's hand holding a cell phone in the car while driving in San Diego

Distracted drivers 

How to begin with this topic. Maybe it’s the weather and beauty here, maybe it’s the pot … could be both. Most likely it’s the almighty cell phone that causes large-scale erratic driving here. 

  • As with any roads in the country now, cell phone abusers abound on the roads here. You’ll find people in the middle of two lanes, weaving, going really slow or almost hitting the curbs. 
  • I fear for construction workers and accident scene victims the most. If you ever have to pull over, be very cautious and move off the road. 
  • We witnessed a female driver almost barrel through a coned and taped-off deadly accident scene because she was looking down. Could have killed an officer. Horrifying. 
  • Best tip for side roads: drive offensively ALL THE TIME. People are constantly looking at their phones and can quickly drift into you. 

Freeway driving in San Diego

Now for the fun part. The freeways here can be so unnerving that I do not drive on them at all. It’s not always fun being the passenger either. 

  • High speeds are likely the most dangerous issue on San Diego freeways. 
  • In just a single month in 2020, San Diego highway patrol officers handed out almost 2500 tickets to drivers going over 100 miles per hour. 
  • Our freeways are crowded, so there’s not much room for error. If drivers would slow down a bit, concentrate completely on the road, and exercise more patience, we’d all be a lot safer. 
  • People failing to signal on freeways and cutting others off are serious problems as well. 
  • It’s not uncommon to see a car zip across 3 lanes of traffic from the fast lane to get off at the exit that’s almost on top of them. 
  • Rubbernecking is way too common on the freeways here. If there’s any sign of a red light or something on the side of the road, etc. be prepared to stop suddenly or crawl along until everyone’s had a good look. 
  • Distracted driving contributes to erratic driving and slow-downs on the freeways. I see people texting while driving high speeds and it sends chills up my spine. 
  • Curiously, hills and curves consistently cause temporary traffic jams on our freeways. And we have plenty of hills here. Makes no sense. 
  • You can be creeping along in a big pack of cars and assume there’s road construction or an accident ahead — only to discover you were simply heading up a hill or around a curve and the road is actually wide open. No reason for anyone to be going 35mph. Scratching my head on this one. All the time. 
Aerial view of San Diego freeway plus two interchanges with moderate traffic and the city skyline in the background

Cyclists and pedestrians

  • There are miles and miles of bike lanes in San Diego so ALWAYS watch for cyclists in your side and rear mirrors before making turns or lane changes. 
  • Some bike lanes allow cyclists the entire lane. You must yield to them in that lane and drive very slowly behind them or pass carefully in the other lane.
  • Some busy intersections have huge crosswalks that go every direction including at a diagonal. You’re never allowed to turn right on red when these are activated.  
  • You’ll notice pedestrian crosswalks with flashing lights in many places –especially beach towns and busy downtown areas. If yellow lights are suddenly flashing in a median or side of the road when you’re driving along, you have to stop. 

Things that could startle you

  • It may come as a shock, but it’s legal for motorcycles to ride in between lanes here. On and off the freeway. It’s an incredibly dangerous practice. 
  • You’ll never quite forget the first time a motorcycle zooms past an inch from your side mirror. 
  • Although it’s illegal, modified car mufflers are abundant here. They sound like gunshots and other horrific noises. And I’ve never seen anyone pulled over for it. Ever. 
  • San Diego’s coastal train takes people up and down the coast all day every day. Most crossings have rails that go down, but not all of them. Trains travel at really high speeds when they don’t have a stop to make. Exercise a lot of caution near any tracks.  

On a more positive note

Before you never want to get in a car in San Diego again — there are a few good things to be grateful for on our roads.

  • San Diego roads and freeways are by and large very generous with road width and number of lanes. Most of our freeways have ample lanes to keep traffic moving fairly smoothly most of the time. 
  • Many roads have 2 (or even 3) turn lanes. This makes the flow of traffic in busy areas and intersections run much more efficiently.
  • The turn arrow signals are longer than any others I’ve ever seen. Sometimes 10+ cars can turn on one arrow (safely). 
  • Most of our roadways and freeways are beautifully landscaped, and since everything grows here, you’ll see color and greenery year round.

FAQs about San Diego driving

Is driving in San Diego difficult?

Driving in San Diego can be quite difficult if you’re not used to congested roads and fast-moving traffic. The volume of cars matches the high population of people, so driving conditions can be hectic and slow-going. There are issues with red-light runners and speeders. So always drive offensively on San Diego roads.

Is San Diego safe to drive?

San Diego is safe to drive if you’re aware of how San Diegans drive, and prepare accordingly. There is a high volume of cars, so keeping a close eye on traffic flow and rule offenders will go a long way towards making you feel safer while driving in and around San Diego. 

Is a car necessary in San Diego?

A car is necessary in San Diego unless you’re talking about the city proper. With the volume of people here, and the layout of most towns, residential areas can be quite a distance from shopping centers. 

So, if you’re hoping for a neighborhood where you can walk to your local coffee shop, there aren’t many. A car will be your best bet for getting to your favorite shops, beaches, and restaurants. 

Is traffic bad in San Diego?

Traffic is bad in San Diego, especially on freeways and major thoroughfares that take you north-south or east-west between towns. The roads to the beaches or along Highway 101 (the beach road) can be quite congested also. 

There’s an uncommonly high number of traffic lights here, so you’re likely to encounter a lot of stop-and-go traffic just to get to the store.

There are some better times of the day to travel, though. Just like with any city with lots of people, stick to off-commute times. And always check your GPS device for the fastest routes for where you’re trying to go. 

San Diego freeway I-15 sign above roadway with palm trees - San Diego driving

Conclusion and tips for driving in San Diego

Driving in San Diego can be frustrating and scary for first timers and visitors. I’m sorry for that. However, now that you’ve got a better idea of what to expect, you can feel a bit more prepared.  

  • Don’t have any expectations of drivers here, except that a large percentage don’t follow road rules, and you’ll be a little more prepared for the experience. 
  • Be alert in case of unexpected lane changes and impatient people behind you. 
  • Don’t drive distracted, be patient, don’t be surprised or waste time being mad or trying to get back at drivers that are being a**holes. 
  • Slow down. But not too slow. Try to move along with the flow of traffic on the freeway … just not at breakneck speeds. 
  • Look both ways before proceeding through an intersection even after your light is green. It’s safer to be proactive against red light runners. 
  • Check mirrors carefully for motorcyclists between lanes before changing lanes on roads and freeways.

All this talk of bad drivers and dangerous roads is enough to cause some serious stress, for sure. But knowledge is power. And besides, San Diego is definitely the paradise it’s always been.

I guess the driving challenges and high prices are simply the cost of living 15 minutes from the water. Worth every gray hair and penny — if you ask me. Everyone should be so lucky.

Now … let’s talk beaches, shall we?

San Diego’s fantastic beaches number in the dozens. We’ll help you find a favorite!

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply