Driving in Alaska
Alaska is known as the Last Frontier for a reason. The largest state in the nation boasts gorgeous natural landscapes, abundant wildlife, and proud residents with mile-wide independent streaks. All of this together can make driving in Alaska a uniquely challenging experience.
But just because driving in Alaska offers hazards unlike those you might find in the lower 48, it doesn't mean getting behind the wheel needs to be any more dangerous or less enjoyable for Alaskan drivers. Here's what you need to know about driving in the Land of the Midnight Sun:
Insuring Your Car in Alaska
Alaska requires drivers to maintain automobile liability insurance that includes the following minimum coverage limits per accident:
- $50,000 for injury/death to one person per accident
- $100,000 for injury/death to more than one person per accident
- $25,000 for damage to property per accident
Alaska drivers may also wish to carry uninsured motorist insurance, because a whopping 13.2 percent of drivers in the state do not have insurance. Alaska is working to fight the problem of uninsured drivers, and drivers caught without insurance face a driver's license suspension. Drivers can stay on the right side of the law and protect themselves financially by maintaining at least the minimum legally required automobile insurance.
Trucks, Trucks, and More Trucks: Car Culture in Alaska
Considering the fact that the Alaska Highway, which connects the contiguous United States to Alaska, was only fully paved as of 1992, it should come as no surprise that heavy duty vehicles are popular in the state. In fact, the Alaska Highway still has "gravel breaks" that are anywhere from a few feet to a few miles long – which makes it much more appealing to drive a hefty vehicle that can handle the occasional off-road conditions that crop up.
That practical need for heavy-duty driving is part of the reason why Anchorage resident Donna Freedman describes Alaska car culture as "Trucks, trucks, and more trucks."
Liz Weston, who lived in Anchorage in the 1990s, concurs: "I do remember that my fellow Alaskans were extremely excited about the introduction of the Hummer. I guess to conquer even bigger meridians."
Of course, Alaskans also like to show off their personality through their vehicles, even if they have to choose something practical to drive. That's why you'll see a tremendous number of vanity plates in Alaska. According to the Alaska Dispatch News, "there are 99,940 vehicles in Alaska with personalized plates, representing roughly 11 percent of the state's total registered vehicles."
Personalized plates give Alaskans the opportunity to show off their independence and sense of humor – and sometimes attempt to get a subversive message through the DMV's censors.
Urban vs. Rural Driving
Considering the size of the state and the fact that so much of Alaska is not inhabited, it's understandable that most of vehicle miles driven in the Last Frontier occur on urban roads. According to studies of driving patterns from 2015, 52 percent of vehicle miles driven in Alaska are on urban roads – which makes sense when you consider just how much of the state is inaccessible by road.
Weston writes "there weren't actually that many places to drive. That's one of the reason's I got my pilot's license." The capital city of Juneau is famously remote, and cannot be reached by road. What this means is that drivers put more miles on their cars on urban roads since you are more likely to find roads in cities.
While the amount of urban or rural driving in any particular state may seem like a merely academic or statistical difference, there is an important safety concern about the amount of driving residents do in each type of environment. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, rural roads are more dangerous than urban roads – car crash deaths per 100 million miles traveled is 2.6 times higher in rural areas compared to urban areas. Despite the fact that city driving increases the opportunity for car accidents, because of the increased congestion on city streets, such accidents generally happen at lower speeds and take place closer to emergency help, which makes them more survivable than accidents in rural areas.
For Alaskans, this means that though rural driving makes up a small percentage of the total vehicle miles traveled, rural roads account for the majority of driving fatalities. According the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 59 percent of Alaska's traffic fatalities in 2010 – 33 of the 56 total deaths – occurred in rural areas.
Of course, just because accidents in urban areas are often more survivable does not mean that Alaskans should relax their guards when they are driving in the city. Freedman, who lives and drives mostly in Anchorage, writes "The first snowfall of the year is celebrated with a newspaper article about all the ditch-divers. Because of the early-season skidders and those who blow through red lights, I look both ways before going forward when the light turns green."
The Cost of a Fill-Up
Gassing up your vehicle in Alaska can take a pretty hefty bite out of your wallet. As of Oct. 11, 2017, AAA calculates the national average cost of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline at $2.478 per gallon. But Alaska fill-ups are costing drivers an average of $3.003 per gallon. And that's just the average cost of gas across the state. In Juneau, you will pay as much as $3.567 per gallon of regular unleaded.
The high cost of gas helps explain something Freedman has noticed: people will get by without cars in some parts of Alaska. "You don't need a car in some parts of Alaska, especially in places that don't have roads per se. Taxis are big business, but so are snow machines and four-wheelers. No wonder, given the gas prices."
High gas prices aren't all bad news, however. When gas prices rise, fewer people can afford to drive, which means fewer accidents.
Miles Driven in Alaska
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which compiles the data on the average number of miles Americans drive, the national mileage average as of 2014 was 13,476 miles per year. Alaskans, on the other hand, only put 9,915 miles on their cars per year.
This is partially an economic decision. It's expensive to drive when gas prices are so high, especially in an environment that's not necessarily hospitable to the average car. That's because the more miles you put on your car, the more you will need to spend on both regular and irregular vehicle maintenance, such as oil changes, tire rotation, and brake pad replacement. According to the financial blog My Money Design, such maintenance costs approximately $0.26/mile, which means driving 9,915 miles per year will cost about $2,578 in annual maintenance on your car.
The state of the roads can also affect your car maintenance costs. As of 2015, the Washington Post reported that 19 percent of Alaska's roads are in poor condition, which is defined as having "so many major ruts, cracks, and potholes that they can't simply be resurfaced – they need to be completely rebuilt." With nearly 1 out of every 5 roads in the state in poor condition, drivers can expect to pay an additional $376 per year in operation and maintenance costs on their vehicles.
Unemployment and Driving
In September of 2017, the national unemployment rate was 4.2 percent. The country is justly proud of maintaining such a low unemployment rate, and this is good news for our economy as a whole. Unfortunately, Alaska is not doing nearly as well. The state's unemployment rate of 7.2 percent as of August of this year, put it last in the nation for employment.
The level of unemployment in Alaska has a direct effect on the driving behaviors within the state. Not only do employed workers have to drive in order to get to their place of employment, they are also in a much better position to spend disposable income. With high unemployment and high gas prices, more Alaskans are likely to stay home, rather than fill the streets at rush hour or drive somewhere to enjoy themselves on their leisure time. Though that is bad news for both the Alaskan economy and your social life, it does mean that there are fewer opportunities for Alaskan drivers to get into car accidents.
Dealing with Distracted Driving
Distracted driving is the 21st century's most preventable cause of car accidents. As of 2015, 3,477 people were killed and 391,000 were injured in distracted driving-related traffic accidents all across America, according to Distraction.gov.
While distracted driving could encompass any behavior that takes a driver's eyes off the road, it generally refers to the distraction posed by cell phones and other handheld devices. While Alaska does not ban handheld cell phone use or the use of cell phones by bus drivers, it does have the harshest punishment in the nation for texting while driving. According to Alaska's text messaging ban, which went into effect in September 2008, a driver could face a maximum fine of up to $10,000 for violating the ban. In addition, the text messaging prohibition is a primary offense, which means police officers can pull over drivers simply for texting and driving, even if they have not violated any other traffic laws.
Teens Behind the Wheel
In Alaska, teenagers as young as 14 may drive with supervision on a learner's permit. While the age at which an Alaskan teen can get a permit is unusually low, the state does follow a graduated licensing program to help teens ease into driving by giving them the time and practice necessary to become safe drivers.
Before receiving a full, unrestricted license, teens must follow these steps:
- Learner's Permit: As of age 14, teens may apply for a learner's permit. They must pass a written driving test and vision test to receive the permit. On this permit, teens must drive with a licensed adult driver over 21 supervising from the front seat. Teens must practice driving for at least 40 hours, including 10 hours in “progressively challenging circumstances," such as nighttime and inclement weather, with a parent or a legal guardian. The learner's permit is valid for two years, and may only be renewed once.
- Provisional License: Once teens reach the age of 16, and they have held their learner's permit for at least six months and completed their practice driving, they may apply for the provisional license. To receive one, teens have to pass a behind the wheel driving test and provide proof of their practice driving. On the provisional license, teens may not drive between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., and they may not drive with any non-family member passengers under age 21, unless supervised by an adult driver.
- Full License: After holding a provisional license for six months, or upon reaching age 18, teens are eligible for a full unrestricted license. The state does not place night or passenger restrictions on those with full licenses, although parents are encouraged to set their own rules.
The State of Driving in Alaska
Alaska's breathtaking beauty and independent spirit make it an exhilarating place to live, and a sometimes challenging place to drive. Understanding just what you may face anytime you get behind the wheel in the Last Frontier can help you to make the safest decisions on the road.