America may be one country -- but when it comes to driving, we are ruled by 51 different sets of laws.
Who can drive, under what circumstances and the cost of operating a vehicle varies widely depending on where you live.
"Insurance is a state-regulated entity, so the requirements do vary by state," says P.J. Crowley, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute, an industry educational organization.
"It's the state that - in the context of auto insurance - determines who is roadworthy and whether they are granted the privilege to drive," he says.
Chances are, you don't remember exactly the level of mandatory coverage you have to carry. And you may or may not remember if you live in a tort or no-fault state - or something in between.
But there's one big reason why you should care: Money. Your state's road rules and regulations will have an impact on your premium.
The most expensive place to insure a car: New Jersey. The least expensive: North Dakota. The reasons are obvious. New Jersey is an urban area with congested roads, while in North Dakota "you can drive for miles and not see a car," says Crowley.
"People need to take the minimums a state will require and apply that to their own circumstance," said Crowley.
Having a lot of cash in the bank is a good thing. But if you cause an accident, you also have more to lose. Conversely, if you're a cash-strapped college student, the state minimums will probably give you all the liability protection you need.
In addition, you want to look at some other common sense factors, like what you drive, where you drive and how well you drive. Add whether you live in a no-fault state and that will give you a framework for the basic coverage you need. Based on your local laws and your financial picture, you and your agent can make some smart choices.
Seat belt laws
"Thankfully, most Americans now wear them," says Crowley of seat belts - 71 percent of us, on average.
Californians do the best, with 91.1 percent of drivers and passengers buckling up. The worst is West Virginia -- where only 52.3 percent of drivers or passengers pause to buckle their belts.
In some states, called "primary enforcement states," police can stop you for not wearing a seat belt. In others, secondary enforcement states, they can't. But if you get pulled over for something else and aren't wearing a belt, you could be in for another ticket. Seat-belt fines vary widely, from $100 in Texas to $5 in Idaho.
Drunk driving laws
Drunk drivers are the biggest danger on American highways. "It remains the single most significant element in accidents today," says Crowley.
In 2001, 41 percent of all traffic deaths could be traced to drinking and driving. In 2002, it was 42 percent, according to figures from the U. S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
What's considered drunk still varies by state -- either blood alcohol of .08 or .10. Now that federal highway funding is being tied to lower blood-alcohol thresholds, more states are moving to a .08 limit.
After the age of 70, the risk of a driver being in an accident starts to climb. The risks become even more pronounced "beyond 80," says Crowley.
But there are no rules of thumb. Some people are sprightly and spry at 85, while others drive erratically at 60. Eyesight, hearing, medications, health and mental state are factors that vary widely from person to person at any age.
While the fatality rates for older drivers are nowhere near as high as for teenagers, the results of an accident can be devastating.. Older bodies are more easily injured and slower to heal. In spite of that, in a country where cars equal freedom and mobility, giving up the car keys is a major milestone.
"It's a difficult societal issue," Crowley says.
To help drivers keep their skills sharp, AARP offers refresher driving courses. And taking a state certified class could well earn you a discount, "which is a nice little perk," Crowley says.
Crowley expects that as states wrestle with the question of who should and should not be behind the wheel, the criteria will be centered on ability - not age.
Young driver laws
Despite the tribulations of old age, teens and young adults are in the most danger when they get into a car.
"The greatest at-risk element of the population are the younger drivers -- 25 and under," says Crowley.
"As a group, teens are more likely to be involved in fatal accidents," he says.
The most dangerous hours: between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. on weekends.
But there are also signs that graduated licensing requirements -- where teens earn driving privileges in stages -- are saving lives. From 1996, when Florida enacted graduated licensing, to 2000, teen traffic deaths decreased 21 percent in that state.
Ironically, while teenagers are in prime physical shape when it comes to senses and reflexes, they have a tremendous handicap when it comes to safe driving, says Crowley.
"They lack experience and maturity," says Crowley. "Good licensing schemes tend to break up what is the most fatal combination teenagers confront: driving a lot at night, with peers in the car and at high speeds."
Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.