Driving in Iowa
There's an excellent reason why someone might mistake Iowa for heaven: the Hawkeye State is home to rolling hills, prairies, rivers, lakes, and woods, not to mention four gorgeous seasons that highlight the natural beauty of the landscape.
Driving in Iowa can feel similarly idyllic. The state has so little traffic that residents measure driving distance in time rather than miles and road rage is almost non-existent among the remarkably polite drivers who peacefully share the road.
But drivers do need to remember that getting behind the wheel in Iowa does carry risks. Here is what you need to know about driving in Iowa so you're prepared for the unique hazards and challenges facing you on the road:
Auto Insurance Requirements for Iowa
Iowa does not require drivers to purchase car insurance, but if you get into an accident, you must be able to show proof of financial responsibility. If you don't provide proof of financial responsibility, the DOT will suspend your driving and registration privileges.
If you are in a car accident that results in bodily injury, death, or property damage of $1,500 or more, you will have to file an Accident Report Form with the Iowa DOT's Office of Driver Services within 72 hours. You will have to do this even if you were not at fault in the accident.
To provide proof of financial responsibility, you can either provide proof of insurance, remit payment to the Office of Driver Services, obtain a release from every involved party, file a statement agreeing to cover the costs, get a civil decision excusing you from liability, agree upon a payment schedule, or submit evidence of a settlement.
By far, the easiest of these is carrying adequate automobile insurance.
Shade Tree Mechanics and Aftermarket Parts: Car Culture in Iowa
Iowans tend to view their cars as practical tools, since they are so necessary for getting around a rural state. Scott Kenemore noticed that pragmatism when he bought a cheap car just to get around: "Not too many people were rocking ZL-1s. I had a woody station wagon that I got for $750, and I got no second looks for it."
That (lack of) reaction probably comes from the fact that many Iowans take pride in keeping their cars in good working order, which means you'll often find older cars like Kenemore's woody wagon on the road. According to Zachary Miller, who grew up in the southwest part of the state, "You find a lot of shade tree mechanics in Iowa – people who have the know-how and choose to take care of their cars themselves rather than paying someone to do something that they're fully capable of doing themselves. For them, their car is an important tool, and as with any tool, you want to keep it in good working order."
This practical, DIY attitude toward car care doesn't mean that Iowans completely forgo a little flash and customization on their vehicles. Gwen Merz writes that "the further out in the country you get, the more people are proud of their vehicles, which are usually trucks. People like to customize their vehicles with aftermarket parts like rims, bigger tailpipes, and custom paint jobs."
These kinds of aftermarket additions don't affect the basic workings of the vehicle, but they do allow the owner to show off a little. It's the perfect blend of Iowan pragmatism and pride.
Miles Driven in Iowa
Living in a large, rural state can mean logging more miles behind the wheel, since you often have to drive some distance just to run your day-to-day errands. This reality helps explain why the average Iowan puts over 1,500 more miles on the odometer per year than the national average. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the average American drove 13,476 miles per year as of 2014, while Iowans drove an average of 15,074 miles during that year.
That additional mileage on cars in Iowa comes with an additional cost. The more time you spend behind the wheel, the more regular and irregular maintenance your vehicle will need to keep it purring like a kitten. According to the financial blog My Money Design, such maintenance costs approximately $0.26/mile, which equates to 15,074 miles per year will cost approximately $3,919 in annual maintenance on your car.
As any Iowan who has bumped along a gravel road can attest, however, car maintenance can also depend on where you drive. Poorly maintained roads can wreak havoc on your car, costing you additional money in maintenance and repairs. According to the Washington Post, 18 percent of Iowa's roads received a poor rating in 2015, which means the roads "have so many major ruts, cracks, and potholes that they can't simply be resurfaced – they need to be completely rebuilt." With nearly one out of every five roads rated as poor in the Hawkeye State, Iowans can expect to spend an additional $396 per year in road-related vehicle maintenance and repair.
Filling Up the Tank
Despite the added maintenance costs of extra driving, the relatively low cost of fuel in Iowa can help the average driver feel like additional miles are no big deal. As of Dec. 7, 2017, the national average cost of a gallon of unleaded gas was $2.477. In Iowa, however, the average gallon of unleaded gas cost $2.458. Gas prices across the state can vary somewhat, however, with a low of $2.361 per gallon in Sioux City, and a high of $2.522 in Cedar Falls.
That difference between Iowa gas prices and national prices may seem negligible, but adding some gas-saving practices (like keeping your tires inflated) can help your bottom line, no matter whether you're paying a little more or a little less than the national average.
Rural vs. Urban Driving
Despite the fact that 64 percent of Iowans live in urban areas, most driving in the state does not occur in cities and other urban environments. In fact, according to a 2015 U.S. Department of Transportation report, 57.5 percent of all vehicle miles traveled in Iowa occurred on rural roads.
This is more than just an academic issue. Where you drive can affect how likely you are to get into – and survive – a car accident. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the rate of car crash deaths per 100 million miles traveled is 2.6 times higher in rural areas compared to urban areas.
Iowa's traffic fatality statistics bear out this troubling trend as 303 of the state's 390 car crash deaths in 2010 – or 78 percent – occurred on rural roads, according to information gathered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Why are car crashes in rural Iowa almost four times as fatal compared to those in urban areas? To start, accidents in urban areas are more likely to occur at low speeds, since traffic congestion and intersections keep drivers from consistently speeding. In addition, a car crash in a rural area may occur some distance away from emergency services, which makes urban accidents more survivable.
However, according to Merz, you should still drive defensively in urban environments – especially on the highway. She writes, "Drivers generally follow the rules of the road, except for one glaring problem. No one uses on-ramps correctly. People will hit the interstate going around 40 mph and then speed up when they're on the road. This causes everyone already on the interstate to slow down and is a massive pain, not to mention a traffic hazard."
Unemployment in the Hawkeye State
As of October 2017, the national unemployment rate reached a low of 4.1 percent. Iowans, however, can boast an even lower rate of 3 percent.
While these statistics indicate a strong economy, you would be forgiven for assuming they don't relate to the state of driving in Iowa. However, Iowa's unemployment rate has a direct impact on driving behavior, because the lower the unemployment rate, the higher number of drivers are on the road.
The good news for Iowans is that commuting doesn't take long, even with low unemployment. Commutes in Iowa average 18.8 minutes one way – far below the national average of 25.5 minutes. This means Iowans get to enjoy the benefits of low unemployment, short commute times, and disposable income to spend on everything from dining in restaurants to attending sports and entertainment – all of which requires more driving.
The Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) takes the issue of distracted driving seriously enough to make clever jokes about it. Drivers regularly pass highway signs reminding them to put down their phones – all while making pop culture references, puns, and other quips to help make sure the message is received.
The Iowa DOT has good reason for concern. Accidents involving distracted drivers killed 3,477 people in 2015, and injured another 391,000, according to the NHTSA. In addition to the clever signage, Iowa also implemented a texting-while-driving ban as of 2011 to help mitigate the problem of distracted driving.
On July 1, 2017, the texting ban became a primary offense, meaning police can pull over a driver simply for violating this ban. Offenders face a fine totaling $100.50 for texting behind the wheel.
In addition to the texting ban, Iowa also prohibits novice drivers from any handheld cell phone use, although veteran drivers face no such prohibition.
Teenagers Behind the Wheel
Like many rural states, Iowa allows teens to apply for an instruction permit as of age 14. According to Becky Ray, who grew up in Iowa, there's an excellent reason for teenagers getting licensed at such a young age: "Farm kids generally need to learn to drive early in life because of the graceful dance that is getting a farmer to and from a field when he has to leave his tractor there."
However, just because the process starts fairly early doesn't mean that Iowa is lax about making sure teens understand the rules of the road. The state requires teens to follow a graduated licensing program before they are eligible for a full, unrestricted license. There are four steps for teens in Iowa to follow to receive their licenses:
- Instruction Permit: As of age 14, Iowa teens may apply for an instruction permit. This involves a vision and knowledge test. On this permit, teens must complete 30 hours of classroom instruction as well as six hours of behind-the-wheel instruction from an accredited driver education program. At that point, teens must log a minimum of 20 hours of supervised practice driving, including at least two hours at night.
- Minor School License: After reaching age 14 and 6 months, teens who have held an instruction permit for at least six months may apply for a minor school license, which allows a teen to drive to and from school unsupervised between the hours of 5 a.m. and 10 p.m. Applicants must live at least one mile from school and must submit an application signed by both an authorized school official and a parent.
- Intermediate License: Once a teen reaches age 16 and has driven on an instruction permit with no violations for at least six months, he or she can apply for an intermediate license. The teen must provide proof of driver's education and supervised practice driving, and must pass a driving test to receive the intermediate license. On this license, teens may drive alone, although they must be supervised by an adult licensed driver to drive between 12:30 a.m. and 5 a.m. In addition, teens must log another 10 hours of supervised driving practice, including two hours at night, on this license.
- Full License: Once teens reach age 17 and have driven conviction-free for 12 months, they can apply for a full license. Parents must sign the teen's driving application and certify that the teen has completed the minimum requirement for practice driving.
On top of the state's requirement, parents should also make and enforce their own driving safety rules for their teen drivers.
The State of Driving in Iowa
Driving is an important – and generally enjoyable – part of life in Iowa. But don't let the beauty of the scenery and the politeness of your fellow drivers blind you to the challenges facing you on the road. Understanding just what to expect when you drive in the Hawkeye State can keep you safer on the road.