Driving in Alabama
More than 100,000 miles of public roads weave through Alabama's spectacular natural beauty, its modern cities, and its long list of historical landmarks. You can road trip through the picturesque Appalachian Mountains in the northeast, coast through the stately antebellum homes that dot Huntsville, or head down south for some sun and fun along the gulf shore.
Whichever you fancy, you can take the long way, winding slowly through a long series of country roads, or cruise along at top speed via one of the six major interstates or 18 U.S. highways that traverse the state. The varied landscape, together with the differing expectations drivers have for the area's myriad roads, all add up to unique challenges for drivers. Here are some things you should know before you get behind the wheel in the Yellowhammer State:
Automobile Insurance in the State of Alabama
Alabamians are legally required to carry a basic level of liability insurance that will cover:
- $25,000 for bodily injury or death per person
- $50,000 total for bodily injury or death per accident
- $25,000 for property damage
While this is the state required minimum coverage, many drivers choose to purchase additional coverage including collision coverage, comprehensive coverage, medical and funeral coverage, and uninsured motorist coverage.
If caught driving without insurance in Alabama, drivers face a $500 fine for a first-time offense and $1,000 for any subsequent offenses, as well as driver's license and auto registration suspensions.
Car Culture in Alabama
As coal mining, steel and iron production have waned, auto manufacturers have moved in to replace those once-locally dominant industries. Today, Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota all maintain manufacturing plants within the Heart of Dixie. Together, these top auto companies produced more than one million cars and light trucks and 1.6 million engines last year within the state alone. Those numbers place the state within the top five auto manufacturers within the nation. Today, vehicles are Alabama's number one export.
Those unexpectedly high manufacturing numbers mean Alabama-based auto makers are more than just producers. They're also employers – 57,000 residents have jobs within the auto sector, either with a manufacturer or a supplier. Those high numbers – which are expected to grow in coming years – point to an increasing symbiosis between cars and Alabamians.
Still, despite the manufacturing boon, Alabama is far from a driver's paradise. Last year the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ranked the nation's worst drivers and Alabama found itself 34th out of the 50 states and Washington D.C.
If that number doesn't drive home the need for caution while driving throughout the state, consider this: according to 10-year crash data compiled by the Alabama Department of Transportation, Alabama drivers have a one in three chance of experiencing injury or death during their lifetimes.
Further, the probability of being in a crash of any severity, at some point, is sky high. It's greater than 98 percent. That means staying aware and keeping safe are tantamount while driving within the Yellowhammer state.
Adding Up the Miles
Those safety numbers may be affected, in part, by the fact that Alabama natives put more miles on their cars than the average American driver, who logged 13,476 miles in 2014, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Alabamians, meanwhile, drove 16,054 miles. That's almost 20 percent more.
Alabama has six major interstates and a dozen and a half U.S. highways that cross the state. All total, there are nearly 102,000 miles of public roads across the Heart of Dixie, many of which are heavily traveled by commuters and truck drivers, alike.
Alabama's metros lag many of the nation's other cities when it comes to other commuting options. “Public transportation is almost non-existent here. Even cabs and Uber are limited, so having a car is practically imperative to getting around in this area," said Jeremiah M. Hodges, a trial lawyer who lives in Northern Alabama. This pattern is prevalent throughout the state. In Birmingham-Hoover, for example, almost 95 percent of residents commute by vehicle. That's the highest rate in the nation.
Alabamians should also take note that extra time behind the wheel equates to added fuel, maintenance, and depreciation costs. Auto owners can expect to pony up 57 cents per mile driven, according to AAA estimates. For the average Alabamian driver, that adds up to a cost of $9,150.78 per year.
Urban Roads and Rural Roads
Alabama's interstates are pocked with large distribution centers, particularly along Interstate 65, which traverses the state from its south shore to its entry with its northern neighbor, Tennessee. The high number of warehouses along the route means that trucks are regularly pulling in and out of interstate interchanges, forcing a lot of high-speed mergers, and catching unwary motorists off-guard.
But tractor trailers aren't the only driving hazard Alabamians face. “People here drive very aggressively," said Shawn, an Anniston native who chose to use only her first name. In fact, speeding is the state's number one cause of fatal crashes.
Another hazard stems from improper use of the left lane. “We have a lot of road rage from people driving slowly in the left lane on the interstates and highways," said Shawn. Indeed, Alabama is one of 29 states with a law that says left lane drivers should move over if traveling slower than the normal speed of traffic. Still, locals complain of left lane “slow drivers," who cruise at reduced speeds to slow near-by motorists down. This habit exacerbates problems as it can create dangerous traffic patterns as faster drivers slow, accelerate, and switch lanes to avoid the slower driver.
Still, traffic hazards extend past the interstates. Crisscrossing the major highways are a long series of rural roads where merging traffic often exceeds posted speed limits and lighting – and therefore visibility – can be poor. While traffic accidents occur more frequently on the state's urban roads, traffic deaths are almost twice as likely on rural roads. That's according to traffic safety performance data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Fueling Up on the Cheap
Perhaps one of the reasons so many Alabamians commute by car is because a tank of gas is cheaper than almost anywhere else in the country. As of Aug. 21, 2017, the national average price-per-gallon was $2.334. In Alabama it was just $2.088. That's the second cheapest in the country. The only place to find a lower price is in South Carolina. The range of gas prices across the state is relatively stable, as well. The lowest cost per gallon could be found in Tuscaloosa, where it was $2.051. The highest cost was in Mobile, where it was $2.115.
Still, cheap gas isn't always good news. When the per-gallon cost drops by one dollar for at least a year, roadway fatalities increase by 11 percent. That's according to preliminary data results compiled by Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health professor Michael A. Morrisey. In particular, young drivers – those aged 18 to 24 – have less disposable income and are therefore most affected by falling gas prices.
How the Economy Rules the Road
While they may seem unrelated, the prevalence of traffic accidents is linked to the health of the economy – both locally and nationally. At home, as employment levels rise, so do the number of commuters. More cars on the road increases the potential for fender benders. Nationally, the same is true, but as disposable incomes rise, people buy more stuff, and there are also more commercial vehicles on the road. “We estimate that each one percentage point decrease in the overall unemployment rate is associated with a 9 percent increase in national fatalities," Morrisey told ScienceDaily.com last year. "Those fatalities are disproportionately associated with commercial vehicles."
That's a double whammy for Alabama, a state that both houses many retail distribution centers and has an outsized population of car commuters. As of July 2017, the national unemployment rate was 4.3 percent, which is similar to the Alabama unemployment rate of 4.5 percent.
Cell Phones, Radio Controls, and Passengers … Oh My
One in ten fatal auto accidents are caused by some form of distracted driving, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those distractions can be caused by a pet, adjusting the car's radio or climate, or – you guessed it – fiddling with a cell phone.
And it's not just young drivers who are to blame. A report by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that older drivers, adults 40 to 59, are just as likely to use their phone while driving as are younger drivers, adults 19 to 24.
While there is no handheld ban in Alabama, there is a texting ban for all drivers and a ban for cellphone use for those driving with a Restricted License (16-year-old drivers and 17-year-old drivers with less than six months' experience on the road). Still, to stay safe on the road, all drivers, regardless of age, should adjust the car dials, properly secure all pets, and stow their phones – before starting each journey.
Teens on the Road
Teenage drivers across the nation are three times more likely to get in car crash than are any other age group. Among newly licensed teens, the risk is even worse. Alabama teens, in particular, face a higher risk than do those from other states, according to a report by National Motor Club AAA. Within the state, teens account for 7 percent of the population yet are responsible for 13 percent of fatal crashes.
To help bridge the gap from passenger to driver, the state prepares teens with a Graduated Driver Licensing Program, which helps drivers prepare for the road with a series of stages, beginning with a leaner license at age 15, before earning a full unrestricted license. A young driver can earn a provisional license at age 16 and an unrestricted license at age 17. At age 18, a driver may earn an unrestricted license without first earning a learner's permit or restricted license.
Restricted license drivers may not have more than one non-family passenger other than the parent, guardian or licensed driver, who is age 21 or older. They also may not drive between midnight and 6 a.m. unless they first meet certain criteria, which include the presence of a licensed adult, parental consent, or driving due to medical or other valid emergency. Teens are also prohibited from using any non-essential handheld device while driving.
The State of Driving in Alabama
From its mountains in the north to its beaches in the south, Alabama's roads are as diverse as is the state's topography. Wherever your route may take you, you also carry the responsibility to be a safe driver. Know the local road culture, as well you're likely to hit roadside snags, and you'll be all set to enjoy the area's varied natural beauty and historical sites.