Driving in California
California was built for driving.
From Route 66 and the Pacific Coast Highway to the bustling freeways of Los Angeles and the majestic bridges of San Francisco, California has gorgeous scenery, exciting routes and unique driving challenges that can test even experienced drivers' skills.
Yes, there are hazards to driving in The Golden State, which can be hard for the Californians – who consider cars to be a way of life – to remember. But understanding what it’s like to drive in California is an important part of making good driving decisions and staying safe on the road.
Here are some helpful things to know before getting behind the wheel in the great state of California:
Automobile Insurance in California
Californians are legally required to carry, at minimum, liability insurance that will cover:
- $15,000 for injury/death to one person
- $30,000 for injury/death to more than one person
- $5,000 for damage to property
Most drivers will choose to purchase additional coverage, including collision coverage, comprehensive coverage, and uninsured motorist coverage.
Unfortunately, uninsured drivers are a fairly serious problem in California. According to 2012 statistics from the Insurance Information Institute, 14.7 percent of California’s drivers have no car insurance, making it the 13th most uninsured state in the nation. To combat this problem, California’s Low Cost Automobile Insurance Program (CLCA), offers eligible lower-income drivers a way to purchase affordable car insurance.
If you’re pulled over in California, you must be prepared to show proof of insurance. Without it, drivers face a $100 to $200 fine for the first offense and a $200-$500 fine for each additional offense within three years of the first.
California’s Car Culture
Detroit may hold the title of Motor City, but California is where car culture first took root. According to Steven Lang, veteran automotive journalist and creator of the Long-Term Automotive Quality Index, “California is where the style, fashion, and speed of the Pacific Rim do battle with the unique demands of the American road.”
Cars have been popular in California since the very beginning of the automotive industry. Leslie Kendall, curator of the Petersen Automotive Museum explains that as of the 1910s, “Southern California already had more cars per capita than just about anyplace else.” This means that at the turn of the 20th century, the state was already laying down a car-centric infrastructure and paving the way for a statewide love of automobiles. Today, there are 1.25 cars for every licensed driver in California.
Californian drivers treat their automobiles as much more than just a way to get from one place to another. Lee Huffman, a lifelong Californian who lives in Orange County and works in Los Angeles, says, “In LA, your car is not just a mode of transportation. It can also be a status symbol, a reflection of your personality.”
For Huffman and many other Californians, it’s not enough for a car to work – it has to look good, too. According to Kendall, there is a long history of this attitude, all the way back to the early 20th Century: “You had to have automobiles. It was a given, but you didn’t have to have bland automobiles.”
For instance, the 1914 GMK Petite Special started out as a boring car from Detroit, but Angelenos modified it by painting it white and adding helmet fenders, nickel plating, vertical bubble windows, and a California top. It went from a frumpy way to get around town to a rolling work of art.
Racking up Miles
In 2014, the last year for which the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has complied the data, the average American driver logged 13,476 miles per year. That’s roughly two round trips from New York City to Los Angeles.
Californian drivers, however, spend more time than that behind the wheel. According to FHWA, the average Californian with a driver’s license drove 14,435 miles in 2014. That’s almost 1,000 miles more.
Whether that additional driving was spent commuting to work or cruising through the desert with the wind in your hair, it’s important to recognize the increased wear-and-tear on your car that those extra 1,000 miles represent. The more you drive, the more you will spend on regular maintenance (e.g., oil changes and new tires), as well as non-regular maintenance (e.g., brake pad, spark plug, and transmission fluid replacements).
Financial blog My Money Design calculates that the cost of such maintenance is approximately $0.26/mile. That means Californians who drive 14,435 miles per year can expect about $3,753 per year in maintenance costs.
Rural vs. Urban Driving
Did you know that where you drive can affect your likelihood of getting into and even surviving a car crash? Though urban areas are more congested, which would suggest that car accidents are more likely to occur there, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has found that the rate of car crash deaths per 100 million miles traveled is 2.4 times lower in urban areas than in rural areas. Luckily, more than 84 percent of the vehicle miles traveled by Californian drivers are on urban roads.
Rural roads tend to be dangerous for the same reasons that they are fun to drive: high speed limits, low traffic, and exciting twists and turns. But these features can surprise unwary drivers. Alex Ballieul, an electronics engineer from Columbus, Ohio who often travels to Southern California for work, loves the rural roads: “Rural California is beautiful, affords spectacular views, and provides great stretches of roads where you can drive exceedingly fast.”
As tempting as it may be to put your pedal to the metal on these types of roads, Californians need to keep in mind the dangers of driving a two-ton machine and stay within the speed limit.
All of this is not to say that urban Californian drivers are exempt from car crashes. Hamish Reid, British-born author of the site California Driving Guide, cautions drivers against the bad driving habits seen on California’s urban roads, such as changing lanes without a signal, driving slowly in the left lane, passing in the right lane, turning from the wrong lane, and running red lights, among others. Ballieul agrees with Reid: “The 405 may not be a winner-take-all Mad Max wasteland, but it’s about as close as we get.”
The Price of Gas
Filling up the tank can be a painful experience, especially for drivers in California. They generally pay more for gas than the rest of the country. In 2012, when gas prices were at their highest, the national average as $3.60 per gallon. But in California, the price went as high as $4.671 per gallon.
Even with the drop in gas prices, the current national average for a gallon of regular unleaded is $2.293 (as of Jan. 26, 2017). In California, however, drivers are shelling out an average of $2.793 per gallon. Of course, that is the state average. Drivers in Yuba City are lucky enough to pay the lowest average gas price, at $2.554 per gallon of unleaded. But for those in the San Luis Obispo area, a gallon will set them back $2.924.
Although gas in California is more expensive than gas in, say, Ohio, it is cheaper than it was just a few years ago. When gas prices drop, more drivers can afford to fill up. This means that there will be more drivers on the road, and unfortunately, more accidents.
The Unemployment Rate
As of December 2016, the national unemployment rate was 4.7 percent. California’s unemployment is a little bit higher at 5.3 percent. Though they probably seem unrelated, the employment rate of a state affects its driving rate. As the employment rate increases, so does the number of commuters. And in California, commutes tend to be fairly long. According to the 2014 Census Bureau American Community Survey, the average Californian commutes for 27 minutes each way, and 9.9 percent of workers report having a commute of 60 minutes or longer.
More generally, higher employment rates tend to signal an improved economy and more discretionary spending. This means more people driving to restaurants, museums, and arenas, as well as more people taking road trips. Furthermore, the more people who are employed, the more people who can purchase big-ticket items, such as cars.
Drinking and driving may have been the biggest road hazard for much of the 20th century, but a new danger has emerged: distracted driving. Distracted driving refers to any situation in which a driver is focused on something other than the road, but it is most commonly associated with drivers using their cell phones (for calling, texting, emailing, etc.) while behind the wheel.
According to Distraction.gov, 3,179 people were killed and another 431,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers in 2014. As horrifying as those numbers are, they may be underestimations. It’s difficult to determine the exact number of crashes involving distracted driving, as most drivers are unwilling to admit to cell phone use, there’s no equivalent to a blood-alcohol test to confirm cell phone use post-crash, and it’s tricky for investigators to obtain cell phone records.
The state of California is actively working to reduce distracted driving. Assembly Bill 1785, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 2017, makes it illegal for drivers to use their phones while driving, unless they are using a hands-free device or voice-operated commands. The bill also stipulates that cell phones must be mounted to the dashboard or windshield. Drivers who violate the law face a $20 fine for the first offense and a $50 fine for subsequent offenses.
Teenagers Behind the Wheel
For many teens, obtaining a driver’s license is a rite of passage, but teens are among the most dangerous drivers on the road. Not only are teen drivers inexperienced, but they are also more likely to engage in distracted driving. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, “distraction was a factor in nearly 6 out of 10 moderate-to-severe teen crashes.”
To make things safer for teens and the other drivers sharing the road with them, California has adopted a graduated driver’s license program. This helps teens ease into driving, giving them the time and practice necessary to become safe drivers. Partly because of this program, California was named the fifth safest state for teenage drivers by CarInsurance.com in 2016.
For teens to become drivers in the Golden State, they first start with a provisional permit, which they may apply for at age 15 1/2. Teens remain on the provisional permit for at least six months and must log at least 50 practice hours (including 10 at night) accompanied by a responsible adult driver before they can graduate to a provisional license.
The provisional license allows teens to drive alone, but not between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. and not with passengers under the age of 20. Once teens reach age 18, they are eligible for a full license. And until age 18, all cell phone use in the car is prohibited, even if they have a hands-free device.
These requirements not only keep teenagers safe and provide their parents some peace of mind, but they also help other drivers in California feel more secure sharing the road with teens.
The State of Driving in California
Californians understand the importance of the car to both American history and modern life. But when car is culture, it can be easy to forget just how much responsibility you have when you get behind the wheel. Understanding what driving is like in the Golden State can put you in the right place to both enjoy your automobile and respect it for the powerful and potentially dangerous machine that it is.