Driving in Massachusetts
Getting behind the wheel in Massachusetts is one of the best ways to experience the rich history of a state that was part of the original 13 colonies. A driving tour of Massachusetts will take you past pilgrim churches, lighthouses, quaint towns, cranberry bogs, salt marshes and mountains.
A Connecticut native who has lived in the Boston area for almost 30 years, Joe Menotti, loves to take scenic Route 116 from Amherst to Adams, especially on his motorcycle. The trip takes you through Historic Deerfield, an outdoor museum of "early New England life" with restored homes dating back to 1730. You pass a state forest and a wildlife sanctuary and end up in the Berkshires, a mountainous area in western Massachusetts. After you get to Adams, you can drive to the top of Mount Greylock, the highest point in the state at 3,491 feet, where you can see up to 90 miles away on a clear day. "That is probably the greatest view I know of in Massachusetts," Menotti says.
As you enjoy the sights of the Bay State, proceed with caution – and patience. Massachusetts drivers, especially those in Boston, have developed such a reputation for impatience that they've earned colorful nicknames. But to be fair to Massachusetts drivers, traffic death statistics show the state is a safer place to drive, on average, than many other U.S. states.
Marketing assistant Katy Roby, who moved from California to Massachusetts, calls driving in the Bay State "hectic" compared with what she experienced in the Golden State.
"People from Massachusetts are known for being straightforward, and I think the same rule applies to their driving behavior," she says.
Massachusetts Auto Insurance Regulations
The state of Massachusetts requires drivers to carry four types of insurance coverage at mandatory minimum levels.
In fact, Massachusetts is one of only 17 states that require personal injury protection (PIP) coverage. Like most states that require PIP, Massachusetts is a no-fault state for vehicle accidents, which means it has a system in which a person can get benefits from their own insurer regardless of who was at fault in the crash. These benefits come through PIP, which covers medical and some other expenses. For example, PIP typically covers lost wages and funeral expenses resulting from an accident.
In Massachusetts, drivers must buy:
- Bodily injury liability coverage of $20,000 per person and $40,000 per accident involving more than one person
- Bodily injury coverage for damage caused by an uninsured automobile at $20,000 per person and $40,000 per accident involving more than one person
- Personal injury protection (PIP) coverage at $8,000 per person per accident
- Property damage liability coverage at $5,000 per accident
Because auto crashes can cause such expensive damage, the state of Massachusetts encourages drivers to purchase insurance policies at higher dollar amounts than the minimum required coverage.
Massachusetts Car Culture
Car culture in Massachusetts tends to be made up of three groups, Menotti observes. First, you have "hardcore commuters" who gravitate to hybrid vehicles to save gas, he says. The second group loves performance-oriented, high-powered vehicles and shows little concern for fuel economy. And, third, you see "anything that runs," which includes some cars that appear to be safety hazards, Menotti says. "As far as driving style, there is no rhyme or reason with the conservative to aggressive drivers found in all three groups," he says.
The tough winters also affect car culture, and the most popular vehicle in Massachusetts is the Toyota RAV4, tailed closely by the Honda CRV and the Ford F-Series. "Four-wheel drive helps a lot here," says Paige Arnof-Fenn, who has lived in Boston for 20 years and says winters can be "brutal."
Many drivers point to a high-strung, tense style of driving that can be nerve wracking whether you're a driver or a passenger. "In comparison with California, it is entirely different," Roby says. "I have heard a Bostonian Uber driver say, 'A yellow light is a ripe green,' which is not exactly a saying in California."
Urban vs. Rural Roads
Everyone who has driven a rural road knows that these scenic byways can pose more dangers and surprises than straight, smooth highways. Having only two lanes makes passing more difficult, and you also deal with curves, hills, deer and other wildlife that can dart in front of your car.
So it makes sense that rural roads are statistically more dangerous to drive. In fact, these roads account for only 30 percent of vehicle miles traveled, but about half of U.S. crash deaths.
However, the numbers tell a different story in Massachusetts, where 94 percent of road deaths occur on urban roads, while only four percent happen in rural areas. That might be partly because Massachusetts interstates are some of the most congested in the country, according to a 2016 study by TRIP, a national transportation research group.
Miles Driven in the Bay State
While most states are seeing an increase in miles driven, Massachusetts has remained relatively stable recently. Drivers logged about 8,300 miles a year per person in Massachusetts in 2013, a number that changed little from the previous year.
The number of miles driven in a state tends to affect the number of vehicle fatalities. The more people drive, the greater their likelihood of dying in an accident. However, the rate of road deaths by vehicle miles traveled varies significantly from state to state, and Massachusetts has a particularly low rate.
In fact, the rate of fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled was .52 in Massachusetts in 2015, less than half the U.S. total of 1.13 deaths. Unfortunately, Massachusetts driving deaths are on the rise, partly due to distracted driving.
New England Gas Prices
Gas prices affect more than just your wallet – they also affect safety on the roads in any state. Generally, the cheaper gas gets, the more people hit the road. And the more people drive, the more accidents occur.
So, while consumers cheer cheap gas prices, it's good to keep in mind that there is a silver lining to slightly more expensive fuel, which is good news for Bay State residents.
The average Massachusetts gas price in mid-October 2017 was $2.59 a gallon, 12 cents higher than the national average gas price of $2.47 a gallon. However, prices ranged from $2.22 a gallon in Brockton, a city in the eastern part of the state, to $3.66 in Nantucket, a tiny island off Cape Cod.
In general, gas prices are higher in New England, Florida and the western part of the country, and lower in the heartland and most of the South.
Unemployment Rate in Massachusetts
In addition to gas prices, unemployment rate also affects the amount driven in a state and thus the number of crashes. People who are unemployed tend to drive less, both because they're not commuting to and from work and because they have less money in the budget to go out for entertainment or on vacation.
There are fewer unemployed people in the Bay State, on average, than in the country overall. The Massachusetts unemployment rate dropped in August 2017 to 4.2 percent, slightly lower than the national average unemployment rate of 4.4 percent. In August 2017, Massachusetts added over 10,000 jobs.
Massachusetts came in 28th in the nation, right in the middle of the pack, in a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics ranking of state unemployment rates. For comparison, North Dakota had the lowest rate while Alaska had the highest.
Efforts to Remediate Distracted Driving
Distracted driving is a major problem across the country, and inattention behind the wheel killed 3,477 people in 2015. Fortunately, laws are being enacted to prevent distracted driving across the country, including in Massachusetts.
However, Massachusetts still lags a little behind the curve compared with the 14 states that have already banned holding and using a cell phone while driving. A distracted driving bill that has passed the state senate seeks to ban handheld devices, with an exception for "a single swipe" to turn on hands-free technology.
The proposed legislation would add to the 2010 Safe Driving Law that made it illegal for teens with a junior operator's license, and for public transport vehicle operators, to use mobile phones while driving. However, other drivers are allowed to use the devices – for now.
The law also made "improper use" of a mobile phone illegal for all drivers. The law spells out that motorists must keep one hand on the wheel at all times and that use of the device must not interfere with driving. Fines range from $35 for the first offense to $150 for the third offense in one year.
The law also made it illegal to send or read electronic communications, including texts, e-mails and instant messages, while driving. Fines range from $100 for the first offense to $500 for the third and subsequent violations.
Despite the law, distracted driving still seems to be prevalent on Massachusetts roads. The Massachusetts state Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Thomas McGee recently told a reporter that texting is still a big problem. The morning he was interviewed, as he headed into a road tunnel in Boston, he had spotted "three or four different drivers ... looking at their phones, holding them up to their faces."
Massachusetts Teen Driving Laws
In Massachusetts, as in many other states, teens undergo a graduated driver licensing program to help them gain skills and confidence on the road before they can get a full, unrestricted license.
At age 16, Massachusetts teen drivers can apply for a permit by visiting a Registry of Motor Vehicles office with their ID and parent or guardian. To get the permit, they must pass a vision exam and a 25-question road knowledge test. A teen with a learner's permit may drive only with a licensed driver who is at least 21 years old and has a minimum of one year of driving experience.
At age 16 1/2, a Massachusetts teen can apply for a junior operator's license. To get the license, the teen must have logged at least 40 hours of supervised driving practice and completed a driver education program that includes 30 hours in a classroom and 12 hours in the car. They also must have had a clean driving record for six months, and their parents must attend a two-hour parent education class. That's because it's crucial for parents to monitor teen driving to help keep new drivers and others safe.
In addition to any restrictions set by parents, a teen with a junior operator's license must follow these Massachusetts rules:
- No passengers under 18, except immediate family members, for six months unless a licensed driver age 21 or older also is in the car.
- No driving between 12:30 a.m. and 5 a.m. unless accompanied by a parent or guardian.
- No using a cell phone, except to report an emergency. The 2010 Safe Driving Law made it illegal for junior operators to use these devices while behind the wheel.
At age 18, a driver who has had a junior operator's license for at least a year may apply for a full, unrestricted Massachusetts driver license.
This graduated licensing program helps Massachusetts teens get used to chaotic streets and snarls of traffic. Boston resident Arnof-Fenn recalls that when her niece started taking driver ed in high school, the teacher took the kids into Harvard Square on their first day behind the wheel. "I know seasoned adult drivers who would avoid that part of Cambridge at all costs, but I guess if you are going to drive here you have to learn fast," she says.
The State of Driving in Massachusetts
The Bay State offers a wealth of history for drivers to explore amid a beautiful backdrop of winding roads, tiny towns, historical sites and mountains. But the state's reputation for frenetic driving, whether it's deserved or not, offers a good reminder to slow down, enjoy the sights and obey the rules of the road.