Driving in Mississippi
Natural beauty and Southern history merge on a road trip through Mississippi, nicknamed the Magnolia State due to the abundance of emblematic white flowers – some the size of dinner plates – that bloom across the state every spring.
If you're taking a driving tour of the state, you won't want to miss perhaps the most famous road in Mississippi, the Natchez Trace Parkway, a national "recreational road and scenic drive" that spans 444 miles and also crosses two other states. This parkway follows the historic "Old Natchez Trace" corridor that was used over hundreds of years by an assortment of travelers, from American Indians to soldiers and future U.S. presidents, according to the National Park Service. Drivers must proceed slowly and watch for bicycles because the parkway is a popular ride for cyclists, and even includes some bicycle-only campgrounds.
Another can't-miss trip in Mississippi: a drive down two-lane Money Road, which will take you past the grave of the famous blues singer and guitarist Robert Johnson who, legend has it, made a deal with the devil. The drive also passes the old Bryant's Grocery where the Emmett Till tragedy occurred.
But if you simply want to get from point A to point B on one of the major highways that cross Mississippi – for example, I-55, which runs north to south or I-20, which crosses the state – you can expect mostly smooth sailing.
"One of the most notable things about driving in Mississippi is the relative lack of traffic," says Scott Barretta, who lives in Greenwood in the Mississippi Delta. Outside of the large urban areas, you can expect to drive the speed limit without encountering much slow traffic or many jams – at least outside the capital city of Jackson and the greater Memphis area, which spills over into the state from neighboring Tennessee. And despite the poverty of the state, the major highways are in fairly good condition, Barretta says.
"That means calculating travel time is easy and driving is relatively safe," he says.
Mississippi Auto Insurance Laws
Like almost all other states, Mississippi requires mandatory minimum levels of auto insurance. If you live and drive in the state, you must have coverage of at least the following levels:
- Bodily injury liability coverage of $25,000 per person
- Bodily injury liability coverage of $50,000 per accident involving more than one person
- Property damage liability coverage of $25,000
Carrying auto insurance at these levels, or higher, is the easiest and most common way to make sure you're in compliance with Mississippi mandatory minimum auto insurance laws.
However, drivers who don't wish to carry insurance may comply by either posting a bond or by making a cash or security deposit with the state in the above required amounts.
In Mississippi, a police officer is not permitted to stop a driver solely to ask for proof of insurance. However, an officer who makes a traffic stop for another reason may check to see if the car is properly insured. Drivers are required to carry an insurance card in the car. The fine for failing to produce a card when an officer asks is $1,000 plus suspension of driving privileges for a year, or until you provide proof of insurance.
Car Culture in the Magnolia State
Mississippi is also known as the Hospitality State. But unfortunately, that hospitality doesn't inspire drivers to signal their intentions on roads and city streets, according to Barretta. "The worst thing about driving here is probably the fact that many people don't use turn signals – or wait until the last minute to do so," he says. That might be because local drivers assume everyone else recognizes their car and knows where they're going to turn, he says.
Just like in many other states in the South, car culture in Mississippi features a lot of big, sturdy pick-up trucks that can handle dirt roads just as well as highways, and can haul anything from brush to building supplies. In fact, the most popular vehicle in Mississippi is the Ford F-150.
"The most common cars you encounter are pick-up trucks," Barretta confirms. "Here in the Delta, it seems as though it's required for men to drive one, and they're often muddy from ventures to hunting camps."
Urban vs. Rural Roads
Generally, for a variety of reasons, rural roads are more dangerous to drive than urban thoroughfares. However, national statistics suggest that rural roads are becoming somewhat safer. Almost two decades ago, in 1999, 61 percent of crash deaths happened on rural roads. By 2015 that number had declined to 53 percent.
However, rural roads in Mississippi still are the site of a sharply disproportionate share of traffic fatalities. The rate of fatalities on rural roads in Mississippi is more than quadruple the overall fatality rate on the state's roads, according to a June 2017 report from TRIP, a national transportation research group.
Poor road condition contributes to traffic fatalities in rural areas, but in Mississippi the problem extends to non-rural roads as well. Despite Barretta's observation about the decent state of most major highways, the pavement is in rough condition on two-thirds of the urban roads and highways in the state, according to the TRIP report.
These substandard road conditions result mostly from shortages in local and state funding, and this state of disrepair costs Mississippi drivers $1.4 billion a year in vehicle repair, increased fuel consumption and accelerated vehicle depreciation every year.
Miles Driven in the Hospitality State
Across the United States, drivers are putting more miles on their vehicles. However, the number of vehicle miles traveled per person has been on the decline in Mississippi. In 2012, the number of vehicle miles traveled per capita in Mississippi dropped to 12,954, down from 14,799 in 2007.
Generally, the more miles driven, the greater number of road deaths that occur. Yet despite the decline in miles driven, Mississippi has a traffic fatality rate of 1.7 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, higher than the national average of 1.13 deaths. In fact, Mississippi has the second highest vehicle fatality rate in the nation after South Carolina.
Seat belt use surely contributes to these troubling statistics. In 2016, the Mississippi seat belt use rate was just under 78 percent, compared with a national average of just over 90 percent.
Mississippi Gas Prices
Gas prices can affect driver decisions to get in the car or stay put at home. And that, in turn, can influence the number of crashes at any given time.
The average price of gas in Mississippi in late October of 2017 was $2.19 per gallon, much lower than the national average price of $2.45 per gallon. Generally, gas prices are lower in the South and in the Midwest than in the rest of the United States.
Even though drivers in Mississippi are benefiting from relatively low gas prices, they can keep even more money in their wallets by using simple gas saving tips that also make driving safer. For example, it's important and economical to keep tires properly inflated and roll windows up while driving at 55 mph or faster. These easy steps make for a quieter, smoother and safer ride.
Believe it or not, the unemployment rate in a state can influence the amount people in that state drive. People who have jobs typically get behind the wheel to go to work each day, and they also have more disposable income to spend on travel.
For Mississippi, there's good news and bad news: unemployment is high, but the lack of jobs may mean fewer accidents on the roads in the state.
The Mississippi unemployment rate dropped to 5.2 percent in September 2017, still a full percentage point higher than the national average unemployment rate of 4.2 percent. In fact, Mississippi has the fifth highest unemployment rate in the country. The only states with higher unemployment rates are Ohio, New Mexico and Alaska; the District of Columbia also has more joblessness.
Efforts to Remediate Distracted Driving
Most people equate distracted driving with texting, but distracted driving also can involve looking away for a second, brushing your hair behind the wheel or grabbing a meal while on the road.
And there's no doubt that distracted driving causes accidents and road deaths. In fact, 80 percent of all crashes involve at least one driver getting distracted in the seconds before the accident. But Mississippi and other states are cracking down on distracted driving to save lives and make roads safer for everyone.
In 2015, Mississippi banned texting and making social media posts while driving. Drivers who break the law may have to pay a $100 civil fine.
However, some law enforcement officers in the state believe the current law doesn't do enough to discourage distracted driving. In early 2017, the Mississippi State Highway Patrol urged state lawmakers to implement tougher distracted driving laws.
Due to the low fine amount and lack of criminal penalty, the law does not do enough to discourage distracted driving, according to these officers. Also, the law only bans two specific behaviors, which means that a driver who was using a phone for another purpose, such as playing a game or using an app, would not technically be violating the law.
Teen Driving Regulations
Like many other states, the Magnolia State has a graduated driver licensing program that requires Mississippi teen drivers to follow special rules as they're gaining experience behind the wheel.
In Mississippi, a teen who has turned 14 and is enrolled in a driver education class can get special 14-year-old learner's permit that allows driving only with a qualified instructor. At age 15, a teen can get a standard learner's permit. To get this permit, the teen must show proof of school enrollment and pass a written rules-of-the-road test as well as a vision exam. A learner's permit allows the teen to drive only when a licensed driver at least 21 years old is supervising from the front passenger seat.
At age 16, a teen who has had a learner's permit for at least a year may take a behind-the-wheel driving test and another vision exam to receive an intermediate license. A teen who holds a Mississippi intermediate license must abide by the following rules:
- No driving without supervision between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. on Monday through Thursday, or between 11:30 p.m. and 6 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. However, the teen may drive during these hours if accompanied by a licensed driver 21 or older in the front passenger seat.
- Everyone in the car must wear a seat belt at all times.
At age 16 and a half, after holding an intermediate license for six months or longer, a teen may apply for a full Mississippi driver license. In order to get this license, which places no special regulations on driving, the teen must present proof of school enrollment and attendance.
Even though the state doesn't have special requirements for teens with full licenses, the Mississippi Department of Public Safety encourages parents to monitor teen driving and impose their own family rules on teen drivers. Parents should also discuss with teen drivers the importance of seat belt use and the dangers of drinking and driving.
The State of Driving in Mississippi
Overall, drivers in Mississippi must be cautious on rural roads and watch out for potholes and other signs of roads in disrepair. But they can enjoy cruising down major highways without being slowed down by lots of traffic, at least away from the big cities. And, if they wish, they can explore the state's rich history and maybe glimpse its namesake flower by taking a leisurely drive down more scenic routes.