Driving in Virginia
A drive through Virginia offers a trip through the American experience – from a traffic snarled weekday commute to the nation's bustling capital to a tour of historical cemeteries to a slow Sunday drive down the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, dubbed "America's Favorite Drive."
The driving experience in Virginia varies widely, depending on your route and your purpose for traveling – whether you're a federal employee in a hurry to get to work in Washington, D.C., a resident on a summer road trip with the kids or a tourist winding your way through the state's many historical sites.
Whatever journey you're on, before you slide behind the wheel, take a look at this roadmap to driving in Virginia:
Auto Insurance in Virginia
Each state imposes its own requirements for auto insurance a driver must carry on their vehicle. State of Virginia auto insurance regulations require as minimum insurance coverage:
- Bodily injury/death of one person: $25,000 per accident
- Bodily injury/death of two or more people: $50,000 per accident
- Property damage: $20,000 per accident
Drivers in Virginia must register uninsured vehicles, paying a fee of $500 per vehicle per year and accepting personal liability for any damages.
A driver who fails to pay this fee and gets caught with an uninsured vehicle faces suspension of their driver's license and vehicle registration privileges. They must pay a $500 fine, along with a $145 license and privilege reinstatement fee. And they are required to file proof of insurance with the state for the next three years.
Virginia's Car Culture
Because Virginia borders our nation's capital, the state's car culture is marked by a heavy emphasis on getting to and from work. In fact, more than 226,000 Virginians work in Washington, D.C., according to a report on commuting from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Frequent traffic jams in that area mean northern Virginians spend a lot of time in the car, even if their commute is short in terms of miles. This contributes to a high average commute time of 28 minutes in Virginia, putting the state in seventh in place in the nation. Overall, about 10 percent of Virginia workers drive more than 60 minutes each way to and from their jobs.
A high number of employees driving solo, rather than carpooling or taking public transportation, contributes to congestion on Virginia roads. In fact, about two-thirds of Virginia residents (67 percent) commute to work by driving alone, according to a 2016 survey of area residents who commute, while only 6 percent carpool with at least one other person.
However, Virginia commuters who live closer to D.C., including residents of the city of Alexandria and Arlington County, are more likely to take alternative modes of transportation to work, and only 41 percent of those commuters drive alone. Virginia Railway Express offers train service daily from Northern Virginia to downtown Washington, D.C., where workers can travel via the D.C. Metro system.
Getting to and from work in Virginia can be a stressful experience. "It's pretty crazy, and drivers are aggressive," says Amanda Ponzar, who has lived and worked in the state for 10 years. Traffic often slows to a halt as drivers funnel onto the Capital Beltway, and it can take 30 to 40 minutes to go a few miles, in Ponzar's experience. She has found that traffic often backs up for no apparent reason, or because of poor road construction, or a car illegally parked in a lane reserved for driving from 4 to 6 p.m. She adds: "I'll admit to doing my share of honking the horn."
When they aren't battling traffic, drivers can take a deep breath and enjoy the scenery. "I love all the trees, whether on the way to Mount Vernon or down to Williamsburg," Ponzar states. "Virginia is a beautiful state."
Urban vs. Rural Roads
Across the United States, driving on rural roads is more dangerous than on urban thoroughfares. Travelers on rural roads are more likely to get into high-speed crashes, which result in more traffic fatalities.
In fact, rural roads accounted for 51 percent of U.S. road deaths in the past five years. In Virginia, that rate surpasses the national average, with rural roads accounting for 63 percent of deaths, compared with 37 percent on urban roads.
Despite these statistics, Virginia roads boast a lower vehicular fatality rate than U.S. roads overall. In Virginia, the death rate is 0.90 per 100 million miles driven, compared with a rate of 1.16 nationwide. In addition, Virginia has 9 auto deaths per 100,000 population, fewer than the 11.6 nationwide average.
Nonetheless, a recent report on rural transportation found that Virginia ranked 17th in the country for country roads in poor condition, with 19 percent of its rural roads in need of repair and modernization. With those repair needs and an abundance of curves and hills, and it's easy to see why driving Virginia's back roads poses challenges.
"It is really difficult to pass a car or tractor because the country roads are so very curvy," observes Doc Findley, who runs a B&B with his wife outside Charlottesville. "There are just too many blind curves to pass anyone."
In his view, it's the price drivers pay for the beautiful scenery. He and his family compensate by allowing extra time when they travel Virginia's rural roads. "We know that we need to leave 10 to 15 minutes early, just in case we get stuck behind a tractor, a bus, a moped, or even the occasional horse on the road going two miles per hour," he says.
Miles Driven in Virginia
In 2016, U.S. drivers logged 3.2 trillion miles on the road, a number that increased for the fifth year in a row, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The number of miles driven dipped during and after the Great Recession but has been on the rise for the past several years.
Despite the high numbers of commuters and the many hours workers spend getting to and from their jobs each week, Virginia drivers log fewer miles behind the wheel than the U.S. average.
In 2014, the state's average annual mileage per capita was just 10,568 miles, almost 3,000 miles less than the national average of 13,500 miles. However, that number is on the rise, with Virginia's miles-per-capita average up 567 miles per person per year from the 2011 number of 10,001. That makes Virginia part of the 70 percent of U.S. states that saw an increase in per-capita mileage during that timeframe.
As drivers have been taking more trips on U.S. and Virginia roads, the number of fatal crashes have ticked upward in the past year. In the U.S., there were 35,092 traffic deaths in 2015, an increase of seven percent over 2014 and the most deaths since 2008.
However, while an improved economy does lead to higher death rates, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the number of auto deaths doesn't always increase in a neat upward trajectory. That's partly because the higher risk of death caused by more driving is offset by advances in vehicle designs and safety technology.
In Virginia, as in the nation as a whole, the numbers have fluctuated from year to year. Virginia traffic deaths increased from 753 to 760 from 2015 to 2016, and its rate stayed the same at 9 per 100,000 population during the same time period. However, in 2013, the state had 740 deaths and a death rate of 9 per 100,000 people, similar to 2016.
Counting the Cost of Gas
The price of gas is on the upswing nationally, but Virginia remains one of the least expensive states in the nation to fill up your tank.
In Virginia, the average gas price of about $2.472 per gallon was in line with other prices in the region, but rang up lower than the national average of $2.66 per gallon, according to the American Automobile Association gas price tracker.
That inexpensive fuel means it's more affordable for Virginians and tourists to take to the roads of the Old Dominion State, visiting top Virginia attractions, from the Arlington National Cemetery to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello to the Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Although most drivers consider cheap gas good news, the downside is that low gas prices encourage drivers to drive more, and more time on the road means more auto fatalities. In fact, U.S. auto fatalities rose by 14 percent from 2014 to 2016, a statistic the National Safety Council attributes to a better economy and cheaper gas.
However, the increase wasn't as sharp in Virginia, which saw a seven percent increase in fatalities on its roads during that timeframe.
In general, Virginia is a fairly safe state to drive in, and it has the 14th lowest rate of auto fatalities in the country.
Joblessness in Virginia
Like the price of gas, employment affects driving patterns. When people have jobs, they stay home less and get behind the wheel more to head to work, to entertainment venues and on vacations.
Like the nation overall, the Virginia unemployment rate is on the decline. The rate has steadily declined since March of 2010 when it hit a highpoint of 7.2 percent as a result of the Great Recession. The unemployment rate in Virginia is approximately 3.5 percent as of February 2018, well below the national average of 4.1 percent for the same month.
However, the Virginia joblessness rate varies widely across the state. Unemployment is lowest, generally below 4 percent, in the northern and central part of the state, where many Washington, D.C. commuters make their homes. In contrast joblessness in the Southern part of the state hovers between 5 and 6 percent, while lack of jobs is worst in the western part of the state, between 7 and 10 percent or higher, on the West Virginia border.
In general, a 1 percent decrease in unemployment is associated with a 2 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled and a two percent increase in traffic deaths.
Efforts to Curb Distracted Driving
More driving means more distracted drivers behind the wheel. Like every state, Virginia faces problems with distracted driving as technology plays a growing role in busy lives. Distracted driving – doing something that takes your attention and possibly your eyes off the road – cost 3,477 lives nationwide in 2015, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Causes of distracted driving can include texting, fiddling with music and eating in the car.
In Virginia, distracted driving contributes to an astonishing 80 percent of auto accidents. The state has taken measures to combat this deadly problem. Virginia law counts distracted driving as a primary offense, meaning police can pull you over solely because they suspect you're texting, emailing or surfing the internet while driving.
In 2013, Virginia lawmakers banned texting while driving. Drivers who get caught pay a fine of $125 the first time and $250 for subsequent offenses. However, Virginia still allows handheld use of cell phones for making calls and getting GPS directions.
Allowing the use of handheld phones, which is banned in both Maryland and Washington, D.C., contributes to distracted driving in the state, according to Sara La Fountain, a food blogger who moved to Virginia from Maryland two years ago and who participated in a national campaign to urge drivers to put down their phones. "It really is shocking how different the driving mentality is from Maryland," she says. "Almost every car I drive next to has a driver on their phone, or with their phone in their hand, or possibly scrolling through Facebook, or even playing Candy Crush."
She adds: "This phone behavior leads to much more dangerous driving, more accidents, and fender benders. It's out of control."
Teen Driving Laws
Distracted driving is an especially serious problem for teen drivers. The biggest cause of distracted driving risk for teens is interacting with passengers (15 percent of crashes), followed by cell phone use (12 percent), according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
Inexperience increases risks when teens get behind the wheel, and that's why states put laws in place to help new drivers gain experience while slowly earning more privileges.
A teen driver in Virginia can get a learner's permit at age 15 and six months. A learner's permit allows a teen to drive with a licensed driver 21 or older (or 18 or older in some cases) in the passenger seat. At age 16 and three months, a teen who has had a learner's permit for at least nine months, can apply for a driver's license and also can drive alone with signed permission from a parent or guardian.
Virginia imposes several restrictions on licensed teen drivers:
- Late Night Curfew – Drivers under 18 cannot drive between midnight and 4 a.m., with some exceptions, such as a trip to or from work or a school or church function, or in an emergency.
- Restriction on Number of Passengers – In most cases, even licensed drivers under 18 may not carry more than one passenger under 21 unless a parent with a valid driver's license is sitting in the front passenger seat. A young driver who has had a driver's license for one year may carry up to three passengers under 21 in some cases, such as when traveling to and from a school event or when a licensed driver 21 or older sits in the front passenger seat. Research has shown each additional young passenger increases the distracted driving crash risk for teens. A driver who only has a learner's permit may not carry more than one passenger under 18, though the rule doesn't apply if the passengers are family members.
A young driver who violates these rules can face suspension of their driver's license. "Virginia's driving restrictions are not meant to penalize teen drivers, but to help them stay safe while they gain valuable driving experience," the Virginia DMV states.
Parents worried about their new teenage driver can remotely monitor their driving using GPS-enabled tracking devices or features that may be available in newer cars.
The State of Driving in Virginia
When you're driving in Virginia, whether you're taking the beltway or a winding rural road, patience is key, says Findley, who moved to Virginia from the relatively flat South Carolina.
Taking extra time to reach your destination will allow you to appreciate the state's natural beauty – including, according to Findley, "the rolling, pastoral expanses of land and the breathtaking views."
Now that you know the rules of the road in Virginia, it's time to buckle up and enjoy exploring this great American state.