Hero Images/Getty Images
Driving and car ownership occupy a lot of space in Americans' waking hours and budgets. Each year American drivers spend an average of 17,600 minutes -- the equivalent of 12 full days -- in their cars, and the average annual cost of owning and operating a vehicle is currently $8,558, according to AAA.
Whether you come out on the high side of those averages and bear the associated burdens has much to do with where you live. In Iowa, the average commute time is just 19 minutes, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures; in New Jersey, it's more than a half-hour.
And it's not just time that's at stake: In Iowa, you're going to pay an average of $647 a year for car insurance. In Jersey? It's $1,300, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. Numbers like those point to big differences in the real-world experiences of drivers.
RATE SEARCH: No matter where you live, find the best auto loan rates nearby.
How we ranked the states
To rank the best and worst states for drivers, we looked at a number of criteria to capture the overall experience of being behind the wheel in each state, including:
- Average commute times, from the census.
- Average annual auto insurance costs, from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
- Estimated average annual spending on fuel, using data from the Oil Price Information Service and the Department of Transportation.
- Average cost of a car repair, from CarMD.
- Rate of car thefts relative to population, from the FBI.
- Motor vehicle deaths relative to miles driven, from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
For each state, we assigned a score of 0-10 on each of these criteria based on the data, then added them up to create overall scores, with 60 as the maximum.
The top states in our ranking are mostly concentrated in the Midwest and the Northeast and are generally less densely populated and have a lower cost of living than the states on the bottom. The bottom of the list is a bit of a mishmash: It includes Southern states like Florida and Louisiana as well as densely populated East Coast states.
RATE SEARCH: Sign up for a great gas card or other rewards credit card.
Sources: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the FBI, CarMD, Oil Price Information Service, U.S. Department of Transportation, National Association of Insurance Commissioners, U.S. Census Bureau
Why some states treat drivers better than others
A number of different factors can contribute to the challenges some states throw at drivers, says Joseph Kane, an associate fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.
Demographics can play a role. States with high population density will generally present more congestion and other obstacles for motorists.
But policy decisions do make a difference, Kane says, and not in the ways you might think. For example, grueling, time-consuming commutes aren't necessarily a sign of underinvestment in road-building. Congested roads may be the norm in states that feature lots of urban sprawl, or where workers are being pushed farther out of urban centers.
And, the answer for long commutes may not be in building more roads, but in providing public transportation options to alleviate some of the strains on highways, Kane says.
Kane points to Atlanta, where voters approved a half-cent sales tax to expand rapid transit, in part, to help relieve traffic issues. Georgia has the eighth worst commute times of all the states, according to the 2015 census data we used, and that can put pressure on family budgets.
"Transportation is the second highest household expenditure category next to housing," Kane says, so providing lower-cost options is a big issue in gridlocked cities. The alternative? "A greater burden on individuals to bear those costs of a system that has been subsidized for a very long time around just the automobile."
Rural states have issues, too
It's not just urban states that present problems for drivers -- rural states have their challenges as well, particularly around safety, says Jacob Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy and research at AAA.
Rural roads with few safety features like dividers or rumble strips are the most dangerous, he says. What's more, drivers in those areas may not be as attentive, or as likely to use a seatbelt, or as prepared to encounter law enforcement officers or other cars on the road. All of that raises the risk of highway fatalities in places like South Carolina, Wyoming and Montana, states that top NHTSA's statistics for roadway deaths per 100,000 miles driven, a measure we used to assess safety.
"These are more dangerous roads -- it's where 56 percent of all highway fatalities occur," Nelson says. "The roads themselves are not as forgiving. If you run off the road and hit a tree or something like that, there's no guardrail to protect you, and it's very easy to cross the center line and have a head-on collision."
In a weird way, urban states' bumper-to-bumper traffic actually helps to keep drivers safe.
"While in congested areas, there are far higher rates of traffic crashes, the severity of those crashes is far lower because people are traveling more slowly, so they tend to be more fender bender-type things," Nelson says.
RATE SEARCH: Need a better ride for your commute? Shop the best auto loan rates near you.
Not an issue that's going away
Unfortunately, the overwhelming trend, especially in denser urban areas, is longer and longer commutes and greater and greater distances between where people work and where they live, Kane says.
But if you don't want to spend so much time and money driving, there may be more options in your future. Increasingly unmanageable traffic and long delays have made states and cities more open to funding alternative transportation projects ranging from rapid transit to bike lanes.
That's "giving people in many places that were purely car-centric just a few years past" a broader range of options for getting around, he says.