Driving in New York
The idea of driving in New York calls to mind the infamous congestion, aggressive drivers, and constant honking that New York City is known for. But as upstate residents are quick to point out, the Empire State is far more than just its most famous city, and driving throughout the state offers varied hazards and challenges – whether you are stuck behind a yellow cab at a Manhattan intersection, or feeling the wind in your hair as you cruise past a winery near the Finger Lakes.
But no matter where in New York you drive, understanding the unique issues facing drivers in your state can help you to make the best possible driving decisions in order to stay safe on the road. Here's what you need to know before you venture out in the Empire State:
Automobile Insurance in New York
New York drivers are legally required to carry the following minimum liability insurance coverage:
- $25,000 for injury/death to one person per accident
- $50,000 for injury/death to more than one person per accident
- $10,000 for damage to property per accident
In addition to these, New York also requires drivers to carry $50,000 in mandatory "no-fault" coverage, since the Empire State is one of 12 "no-fault" automobile insurance states. What this means is that every driver must carry insurance for his or her own protection, and there are limitations on a driver's ability to sue the other driver in the event of an accident.
New York also requires all auto insurance policies to provide uninsured motorists coverage (for bodily injury), subject to the same minimums as those listed above. In addition, SUM (Supplementary Uninsured/Underinsured Motorists) coverage can also be purchased, in amounts up to the bodily injury liability limits of an insured's own policy.
New York Car Culture
New York City is one of largest cultural centers in the world, which means that much of American car culture can trace its roots to the city. For instance, some might argue that the mainstream appreciation for automobiles as art began in 1951 when the Museum of Modern Art became the first museum in the world to exhibit iconic automobiles as pure elements of art and design.
However, for the average New Yorker, attitudes towards cars are pretty pragmatic. The city's excellent public transportation makes it possible to avoid driving. According to Ken Schultz, who lives in Astoria, Queens, "In New York City, the assumption is that you don't have a car. So when you do have one, everyone is always surprised and grateful if you can give them a ride anywhere that's quicker than the subway."
Suzy Sarr, who lives upstate in Pittsford, has noticed a similar breakdown of car love vs. pragmatism: "People are in one of two camps. Either they LOVE their car (because they race it, or it's a Tesla, or it's historic), OR cars are just a utility. You can really see this by looking at the parking lot outside my office window. There's a sea of generic cars in various shades of gray, then all the way back in the far back row are the Cadillacs and Audis."
While New Yorkers may mostly drive practical vehicles, car racing is a legitimate hobby all over the state – whether you are behind the wheel or cheering from the stands. Upstate New York is home to the famous Watkins Glen International race track, among dozens of other race tracks, ranging from dirt oval tracks to historic road courses.
Miles Driven in the Empire State
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration which compiles data on the amount of miles driven by Americans each year, the average driver logged 13,476 miles in 2014 – the most recent year for which we have data. That same year the average New York driver only spent 11,871 miles behind the wheel.
New Yorkers' below-average mileage could make a big difference to their pocketbooks since it can help to reduce the costs of regular and irregular vehicle maintenance, including everything from oil changes and tire rotations to timing belt and coolant replacement. The financial blog My Money Design has calculated that these sorts of maintenance cost drivers approximately $0.26/mile. An average New Yorker putting 11,871 miles on their car can expect to spend approximately $3,086 per year on vehicle maintenance – a nearly $500 savings over the $3,503 the average American spends by driving 13,476 miles per year.
Of course, where you drive can affect your maintenance costs almost as much as how many miles you drive. New York's harsh winters and poor roads add to the cost of maintaining a car in the state. The Washington Post reported in 2015 that a whopping 38 percent of New York roads are rated as poor, which means "they have so many major ruts, cracks and potholes that they can't simply be resurfaced – the need to be completely rebuilt." With nearly 2 out of every 5 roads in the Empire State rated as poor, it's no wonder that the Washington Post calculates that New Yorkers should expect to pay an additional $563 per year in vehicle maintenance costs because of bad roadway conditions.
Rural Routes and Urban Avenues
We tend to think of urban areas as more dangerous places to drive – and this is especially true when we imagine driving in downtown New York, which holds a special place of driving anxiety in our psyches. Schultz writes "I've only driven in Manhattan a couple times because I don't have a death wish." This belief in the unique danger of Manhattan driving is a common sentiment.
However, despite our understandable concerns about urban driving, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has found that rural roads are more hazardous for drivers than their urban counterparts. The rate of car crash deaths per 100 million miles traveled is 2.6 times higher in rural areas compared to urban areas across the country. This counterintuitive finding makes sense when you think about the realities of accidents in both rural and urban environments. Although congestion in urban settings may lead to more accidents, those accidents tend to be more survivable than accidents in rural areas – both because drivers are traveling at lower speeds and because emergency help is more readily available.
The higher relative danger of rural roads is borne out by the statistics on traffic fatalities in New York. In 2016, there were 1,025 traffic fatalities in New York, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. There were 569 fatalities on urban roads and 456 fatalities on rural roads.
These numbers also emphasize specific hazards of driving in urban New York – specifically New York City – where drivers are world-renowned for their aggression. According to Kevin Matthews of Harlem, "The stigma of the angry New Yorker is more of the NYC driver than the average resident. Everyone is blowing their horn at the drop of a dime ... even at a red light. Cab drivers will blow at people standing on the corner." All of that aggression can add to the stress and hazards of driving in New York City.
Filling Your Tank
New Yorkers in general pay more for their fill-ups than the average American driver. The average national price for a gallon of regular unleaded gas was $2.662 as of April 6, 2018 – but New Yorkers were paying an average of $2.768 per gallon.
Prices do vary across the state. The highest prices are in New York City, as you might expect. Drivers in the Big Apple pay $2.613 per gallon. The lowest prices are found in the Albany area, where gas prices average $2.351 per gallon.
Unemployment and Driving Behavior
While the rate of unemployment may seem unrelated to driving behavior, there is an interesting relationship between the two. That's because lower unemployment means more drivers on the road, since employed individuals need to commute to work and have more disposable income to spend, which also leads to more driving. Professor Michael A. Morrisey, Ph.D. of Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health has found that each percentage point drop in unemployment is associated with a 9 percent increase in national traffic fatalities.
The national unemployment rate as of February 2018 is a remarkably low 4.1 percent New York's unemployment is only slightly higher at 4.6 percent. On the plus side, this low unemployment rate indicates that the local and national economy is doing well, which is excellent news for everyone from business owners to government.
However, low unemployment can make driving more stressful and frustrating, particularly for commuters who have to share the road with a record number of other workers. Commutes to work in New York are very long, averaging 31.6 minutes each way, as compared to the national average of 25.5 minute commutes. While 28.4 percent of New Yorkers use public transportation to commute to work, low unemployment can still affect their driving behavior outside of work hours, as employed workers have the money to drive to restaurants and entertainment in their off hours.
Distracted Driving: A 21st Century Problem
In the age of cell phones and handheld devices constantly pinging with notifications, it is very easy to take your eyes off the road for a moment while you are driving. Even if you have your phone carefully stowed in a bag or your trunk, eating, drinking, or paying too close attention to your GPS can all distract you while you are driving, which can endanger you, your passengers and anyone sharing the road with you.
Distracted driving is a problem all across America. In 2015, 3,477 people were killed and another 391,000 were injured nationally in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers according to Distraction.gov. New York has decided to crack down on the problem of distracted driving and has instituted more stringent penalties for distracted driving. These include:
- For a first offense, the minimum fine is $50 and the maximum is $200
- A second offense in 18 months increases the maximum fine to $250
- A third offense in 18 months results in a maximum fine of $450
- Probationary and junior drivers face a 120-day suspension of their license for a first offense, and one year revocation of their permit or license if a second offense is committed within six months
Teen Drivers in New York
There is an excellent reason why New York made the penalty for distracted driving on a junior or probationary license so much more severe. Teenagers as a demographic are among the most dangerous drivers on the road because of their inexperience and their higher likelihood of driving while distracted. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, "distraction was a factor in nearly 6 out of 10 moderate-to-severe teen crashes."
For this reason, New York is one of many states to offer multi-stage licensing for teenagers to support their ability to gradually learn driving skills while protecting the new drivers and those who share the road with them. New York's graduated licensing has three tiers:
- Learner's Permit – Teens who are 16 or older may apply for a learner's permit. This license allows teens to drive under the immediate supervision of an adult licensed driver. Teens on a learner's permit may not have more than one non-family passenger who is under the age of 21. On this permit, teens are required to have 50 hours of driving practice, with 15 of those hours at night, before moving to the next stage.
- Junior Driver's License – Teens who have held a learner's permit for six months and who have completed the requisite driving practice may apply for a junior license. With this license, teens may drive on their own, but must follow certain restrictions. They may not drive with more than one non-family passenger under 21. The holders of a junior driver's license may not drive in the city of New York. Upstate, teens may not drive between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m., except to or from school or work.
- Full Driver's License – At age 17, teens are eligible for a full unrestricted license if they have a junior driver's license and have completed a driver education course. At age 18, teens still carrying a junior driver's license will automatically receive their full license in the mail.
The State of Driving in New York
Whether you are driving through the Big Apple or the rolling hills of upstate, getting behind the wheel in New York offers unique hazards and challenges that you need to prepared for. Understanding the state of driving in the Empire State can help you make the best and safest decisions on the road.