Which is the
best state for driving?
Determining which state is the best in the country for driving first involves working out how you’re defining ‘best.’ You can use 50 different methodologies and get 50 different answers. Much of the existing research does a great job of quantifying information to make it comparable across all states.
However, it’s easy to overlook the romantic and aesthetic aspect of driving, which needs to consider the scenery and vistas in a state. This report examines the existing literature to give a meta-analysis, before concluding with which state is the best in the United States for driving.
A 2018 study by WalletHub combined four key metrics across the four states:
- Cost of Car Ownership and Maintenance
- Traffic and Infrastructure
- Access to Vehicles
These were then given a numerical score, which allowed for a ranking of states based on how good they are to drive in. The five worst states for driving were Hawaii, Washington, Maryland, California, and Connecticut.
The five best were:
North Carolina’s fifth place was driven mostly by a high rank for ‘Cost of Ownership and Maintenance’, being third in the nation for low cost of running a car.
However, for traffic and safety, NC was very much in the middle, being ranked 23rd and 26th respectively.
Iowa secured an eighth-place finish in traffic and infrastructure, although finished in 25th place for safety and 19th place for cost.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a large, sparsely populated state, Nebraska ranked number 1 in the country for traffic and infrastructure. However, Nebraska ranked 29th for safety and 20th for the cost of owning a vehicle.
Like its neighbor, Nebraska, Kansas was highly ranked for traffic, coming in second place. It also ranked in the middle of the pack when it came to cost of ownership and safety (16th and 27th).
Topping the WalletHub scoring system was Texas, which had a low cost of ownership ranking (12th place), a traffic ranking of 21/50, and a safety ranking of 23/50.
While the WalletHub methodology is extremely thorough, it provides only a small picture of what makes driving in a state great or not. Certainly, all round cost is a major factor in the happiness of drivers.
However, the WalletHub study didn’t consider factors that, while harder to quantify, are definitely important, such as scenery.
States like California and Washington languished in the bottom of the WalletHub poll, yet anyone who has driven in the mountains, National Parks, or Ocean Highways of either state would disagree.
By the same token, Nebraska and Kansas may have little traffic, but neither state is famous for its scenery.
In order to build a broader picture of the best states for driving in, we need to include more information and to consider more factors.
By quality of driver
One of the most important things to factor in when it comes to how good a state is to drive in is the quality of other drivers. Using the following three metrics, we can get a sense of how law-abiding other drivers are, which we can extrapolate to get a picture of their caliber as drivers. The three categories are:
- Drivers with moving violations
- Drivers with speeding violations
- Drivers with a DUI history
Based on these criteria, we get a top five list of:
Illinois’ DUI rate is extremely low, ranked the highest in the country, with less than 1% with a DUI. Illinois DUI laws are extremely tough, with a first offense carrying a potential sentence of up to a year in jail.
4 New Jersey
New Jersey has the second lowest rate of speeding tickets in the country, telling us either that the drivers obey the speed limit there more often, or that the police in New Jersey are more lenient when it comes to issuing tickets.
Either way, it improves the overall driving experience of the state. Like Illinois, NJ has strict DUI laws, which has been reflected in their low DUI history.
Texas is the third-ranked state for moving violations, and is fourth for speeding violations, meaning that Texan drivers are consistently law-abiding across the board when it comes to driving.
Like Texas, Pennsylvanian drivers are regularly on the right side of the law, and they rank in the top three nationally for both moving and speeding violations.
As evidence for the impact of these factors, in 2016, Pennsylvania was ranked as the state with the lowest traffic fatalities in the nation.
Michigan’s first place on the ranking comes by virtue of their low ranking for moving violations, which is number one in the country.
Furthermore, their speeding and DUI rankings are both 6th and 50th (in this case the larger number meaning fewer violations), meaning that across the board Michigan drivers are the most law-abiding.
Along with considering other drivers, it is crucial to consider the scenery when examining how good a state is to drive in. The following list of five drives regularly top polls for the best driving roads in the United States. Because of the subjective nature of these, they are presented in no particular order.
California route 1
State Route 1 contains parts of the Pacific Coast Highway and Route 101, and runs from Orange County in the South to Mendocino County in the North, following along the Pacific Coast.
The two most famous (and scenic) parts of the highway are the area known as ‘Big Sur’, and the crossing of the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco.
florida overseas highway
Confusingly, despite being a continent away from California, the Overseas Highway is also known as Route 1. The highway travels from Miami down to Key West, encompassing a trip to the most southern part of the contiguous United States.
The route includes sections passing over stretches of the Gulf of Mexico, giving the route its colloquial name.
Washington olympic loop
The Olympic Peninsula loop in Washington State contains a trip to the northwest tip of the contiguous United States. The Olympic Peninsula contains rainforests, a mountain range, and beaches, making it one of the most biodiverse areas in the country.
oregon highway 101
Like the Californian Pacific Coast Highway, Oregon Route 101 follows the shore for almost its entirety. Running the length of the Oregon Coast from Washington State to California, the highway runs between mountains and coast, with wide panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean.
utah highway 12
Utah State Route 12 is known as Scenic Byway 12 and runs through some of Utah’s most rugged and dramatic scenery. The highway is 122 miles long, and runs from Bryce Canyon National Park and Grand Staircase National Monument, crossing Boulder Mountain in the interim.
Although each of these routes is subjectively beautiful, there is a way that we can quantify the beauty of a state’s routes. The National Scenic Byway scheme is a U.S. Department of Transportation designation based on six criteria. In order for a road to qualify as a ‘Scenic Byway’ is must have one or more of the following qualities:
For roads that meet two or more of the criteria, there is the All-American Road designation. At present, 31 roads meet the All-American Road qualification. Four states have more than one of these roads, and Oregon ranks the highest with four.
4 All-American roads
2 All-American roads
2 All-American roads
2 All-American roads
Cost of Driving
Factoring in the cost of driving is also critical when it comes to how good a state is to drive in. Using research from 247 Wall Street, who examined the cost of operation beyond that of WalletHub, it is possible to build a picture that includes the price of gas in each state, as well as insurance premiums, and the number of miles driven by citizens of each state.
According to these numbers, the cheapest five states for driving were:
Iowans drive less than other Americans on average, meaning that their insurance premiums are lower, and their commute times are less. The annual cost of operating a car was $2,903.
Ohio has the second lowest car insurance premium in the United States, which helped to keep overall running costs low. Their annual operating cost was $2,898.
Wisconsin’s tax on gas places it as the sixth highest in the country. However, because of the low insurance premiums, and below-average mileage, Wisconsin’s annual operating cost is $2,882.
The annual cost of operating a car in New Hampshire is $2,775. The low prices are driven by a low gas price in New Hampshire, as well as low insurance premiums.
Hawaii has the 3rd highest gas in the country, although because of the relatively low number of miles Hawaiian drivers travel each year, the annual cost of operating a car was $2,732.
Assessing the overall beauty of a state is near-impossible. However, a metric we can use to assess the attractiveness of a state is the number of National Parks each one has.
States with more National Parks have more areas of designated beauty and therefore are more likely to be pleasant places to drive.
California has the most National Parks, followed by Alaska, Utah, and Colorado. Arizona, Florida, and Washington State each have three National Parks, placing them all tied in fifth.
9 National parks
8 National parks
5 National parks
4 National parks
3 National parks
3 National parks
3 National parks
In the final analysis, it remains subjective as to which is the best state for driving in. Ultimately, although it is possible to provide statistics and data to support one factor or another, it is down to the preference of the individual driver as to what factor is most important, or how they are weighed.
- That said, a number of states regularly appear at the top of the various lists identified above. The West Coast states perform proportionally higher when it comes to matters of aesthetics.
- Although Washington, Oregon, and California score relatively low when it comes to affordability, their coastal highways draw tourists from across the globe.
Typical analyses of the best states for driving focus on the cost comparisons. Certainly, if you live in a state that costs 20% less than its neighbors for ownership of a car it is a boon.
The former is the quotidian aspect: insurance premiums, gas prices, and maintenance costs. The latter is the romantic aspect, traveling to stunning places and exploring breathtaking scenery.
For that reason, it’s hard to beat the draw of California, with its nine National Parks, including Yosemite and Sequoia, as well as the Big Sur highway, and driving across the Golden Gate bridge.