Driving in Washington
From historic Route 395 curving through Spokane in the east, to the eerily beautiful views of Diablo Lake from Route 20 in the north, to the White Pass Scenic Byway winding through the forests of Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Rainier National Parks in the southwest, driving in Washington is more than just a method of transportation. It is also an excellent way to take in the diverse natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest, whether you are simply admiring from the tree-lined highway or traveling to your favorite hiking, camping, skiing, or fishing destination.
While cars do allow Washingtonians to appreciate nature (and go get coffee) – driving in the Evergreen does present some unique challenges. Here's what you need to know about the specific issues and hazards you may face on the road in the great state of Washington:
Automobile Insurance in Washington State
Washington's mandatory automobile insurance laws require any motorist in the state to carry liability insurance that will help pay for damages in case of an accident. The mandatory minimum liability insurance you must carry includes:
- $25,000 for injuries or death per person
- $50,000 for injuries or death per accident
- $10,000 for property damage
Alternatively, you may also fulfill the legal requirement for auto insurance by either applying for a certificate of deposit to pay for your liability insurance with the Department of Licensing, or carry a liability bond of at least $60,000.
These are the minimum requirements, however, and most drivers will choose to purchase additional coverage, such as collision coverage, comprehensive coverage, and uninsured motorist coverage. In particular, many drivers will prioritize getting coverage for uninsured motorists because Washington is the seventh most uninsured state in the nation, with 17.4 percent of drivers forgoing their mandatory insurance.
Washington's Car Culture: Four-Wheel Drives and Electric Cars
Washingtonians love that their cars can bring them closer to nature. According to Tami Goldfadim, who has lived in Seattle since she moved there from Baltimore in 2001, "People here are VERY outdoorsy and their cars reflect that a lot."
This helps to explain why Subarus – which are marketed as outdoorsy four-wheel drive cars – enjoy such popularity across the state. Survey data from the market research firm Nielsen Scarborough found that 1 out of every 10 car owners in Seattle and Spokane own a Subaru, making them the two metro areas in the country with the highest percentage of Subaru ownership. The national average is only 1 out of every 35.
But in addition to wanting to get out into the great wide outdoors, Washington drivers also care about being good stewards for the environment. "There are a lot of eco-conscious people here," writes Mindy Crary, who lives in the Seattle metro area. "The amount of smart cars and electric cars have been increasing a lot in recent years."
As of 2014, Washington had the highest percentage of electric cars in the nation, with a 1.6 percent share of new car registrations going to electric vehicles. This is, in part, stemming from the state's self-imposed goal to have 50,000 electric cars on the road by the year 2020 – and Washingtonians are working to meet that goal, with over 24,600 plug-in cars registered as of June 2017 – a 36 percent increase over 2016.
Urban vs. Rural Driving
According U.S. Census data, 84.1 percent of Washingtonians live in urban areas, which means they are likely to spend more time behind the wheel in cities. But considering how much Washingtonians love to get out into nature, it's important to understand the differences between your weekday commute in the city compared to your weekend jaunts to the mountains, lake, or woods.
You might assume that driving is more dangerous in the city, because of the higher congestion. But although the increased traffic on city streets does make accidents more likely, that congestion also means accidents are generally more survivable. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has determined that the rate of car crash deaths per 100 million miles traveled is 2.6 times lower in urban areas compared to rural areas across the country.
In Washington, only about 27 percent of vehicle miles traveled are on rural roads, and yet just over 50 percent of traffic-related fatalities – 288 deaths out of a total of 568 – occurred on rural roads in 2015, the latest year for which we have statistics compiled.
This does not mean that you should relax in urban driving environments. Tonya Stumphauzer, who lived in Seattle for several years, describes Washingtonians as "slow, laid-back drivers who tend to drive slowly in the left-hand lane and never make way for faster drivers."
It may seem that driving among laid-back motorists would be a good thing, but Goldfadim has noticed how dangerous this trait can be: "People here are very timid. They do NOT drive defensively and most people drive like they walk. You always need to anticipate other drivers and navigate around them."
Miles Driven by Washingtonians
The average American logs 13,476 miles behind the wheel per year, according to 2014 data compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration – but drivers in the Evergreen State only put 12,837 miles on their cars per year.
The difference between the national and the Washington average mileage seem pretty modest, but at least some of the lower mileage is by design. Because of its commitment to environmentalism, Washington has a fairly robust public transportation system. In Seattle, 18.19% of commuters use public transportation, and in Bellevue, 10.78% use it, making these two of the 50 highest rated cities in America for public transit commuting to work. Even Washingtonians who have cars, like Goldfadim, will often walk or take public transportation to work: "I try to take the bus as much as possible, and I live in a very walkable neighborhood."
A reduction in miles driven per year is not just good for the environment, but also your bottom line, since it saves you a little money on both regular and irregular car maintenance. According to the financial blog My Money Design, such maintenance costs approximately $0.26/mile, which means 12,837 miles per year will cost approximately $3,338 in annual maintenance on your car.
Unfortunately, where you drive can affect your maintenance costs, and the roads in Washington can increase your maintenance spending. According to the Washington Post, a staggering 39% of Washington 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." Poor roads can do a number on your car, and Washington drivers can expect to spend an average of $551 per year on additional operational and maintenance costs because of these poor roads.
The Cost of a Fill-Up
While environmentalism is a big part of the reason why electric cars and gas sippers are common in Washington, the cost of gas is another factor in the popularity of fuel-efficient vehicles. Washington has the fourth highest gas prices in the county. As of May 5, 2017, a gallon of regular unleaded costs an average of $2.890 in Washington, while the national average price was $2.361, according to AAA.
Across the state, you are likely to find that prices vary, although even the lowest gas prices in Washington, $2.775 per gallon in Spokane, is higher than the average national price. Filling up in the Seattle metro area is going to set you back the most, at $2.935 per gallon.
Unemployment and Driving
As of April 2017, the national unemployment rate fell to 4.4 percent, but the rate in the state of Washington was slightly higher at 4.7 percent. This information may seem unrelated to driving, but a state's level of employment has a direct effect on the driving behavior of its residents.
The connection between employment and driving behavior is partially due to commuting. The lower the unemployment rate, the more people there are on the roads getting to and from work.
Commutes in Washington average 27.5 minutes one way, and additional workers on the road can make the commutes even longer. Mindy Crary works from home regularly so she does not have to deal with rush hour congestion: "I do everything I can to avoid the daily Seattle Interstate 5 commuter gridlock." The strong public transportation system helps to defray these commuting headaches in the Seattle area, however.
In addition to commuting, higher employment also affects leisure time driving. High employment is generally correlated with a good economy, which means more people have discretionary money available to spend on dining out, entertainment, and outdoor pursuits – all of which they may drive to.
We are connected to our phones 24/7, and the ping of your text message alert can often cause an almost Pavlovian response – even when you are driving. It may seem like no big deal to glance at your phone, but such distractions can be dangerous, or even deadly.
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. In Washington in 2015, 171 traffic deaths – totaling one-third of all car accident fatalities that year – were attributed to distracted driving.
Washington's leadership is working to remediate the problem of distracted driving. To start, current law already bans all drivers from using handheld devices and from texting. These bans are considered primary offenses, which means you can be pulled over for violating them. This carries a $124 fine.
In addition, Senate Bill 5289, the Driving Under the Influence of Electronics Act, was signed by Governor Jay Inslee in May 2017. This law bans the use of streaming video and social media applications, which are legal under the current law, and would increase the fines to $136 for a first offense, and $245 for a second. This legislation will go into effect as of January 1, 2019.
Graduated Licensing for Teen Drivers
Washington recognizes that teenagers have a lot to learn before becoming fully qualified drivers. For this reason, the state driving regulations have a graduated licensing program for teens that supports new drivers while they are learning the skills they need to drive safely. There are three levels to the graduated license:
- Instruction Permit: Teens may apply for an instruction permit as of their 15th birthday if they are enrolled in a driver education class. Without the class, teens must wait until they are 15-1/2 or older to apply for the permit, they must pass a knowledge test to receive it, and they must hold the permit until age 18.
- Intermediate License: 16-year-old teens who have passed a traffic safety education course, held an instruction permit for a minimum of six months, and have completed at least 50 hours of practice driving (including 10 hours at night) may apply for an intermediate license. For the first year of holding the intermediate license, teen drivers will face restrictions on the number of passengers under the age of 20 that they may carry.
- Full License: As of age 18, the intermediate license automatically becomes a full license.
The State of Driving in Washington
Driving in Washington can run the gamut from commuting to experiencing the joys of nature to embracing eco-friendly technology. But it pays to remember that anytime you get behind the wheel, you are responsible for a powerful and potentially dangerous machine, and it is up to you to drive safely and courteously. Understanding the state of driving in Washington can help you to make the best possible decisions for your vehicle, both on and off the road.