Driving in Delaware
Delaware is the second smallest state in the nation, which means it takes very little time to drive through the three counties that make up the First State. But the relative size of Delaware doesn't mean it's lacking in beautiful, scenic drives, like the Bayshore Byway, or frustrating traffic snarls, like I-95 during the summer beach rush.
The fact of the matter is that getting behind the wheel in Delaware offers unique hazards and challenges that every driver should prepare for. Here's what you need to know about driving in the First State – before you get out on the road:
Automobile Insurance in Delaware
Delaware'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. As of December 13, 2017 the mandatory minimum liability insurance you must carry includes:
- $25,000 for injury or death to one person per accident
- $50,000 for injury or death to more than one person per accident
- $10,000 for property damage per accident
Delaware law also requires drivers to carry personal injury protection. This kind of insurance will help pay for medical costs no matter who caused an accident, and for that reason, it is often referred to as "no-fault insurance." Delaware requires the following minimums for personal injury protection insurance:
- $15,000 for bodily injury to one person per accident
- $30,000 for bodily injury to multiple people per accident
License Plates as Status Symbols: Car Culture in Delaware
In general, Delawareans have a pragmatic view of their cars. According to Mark Strazzer, who grew up in the First State, "Delaware is pretty practical about their cars. They use it to get from point A to point B."
Jana Lynch, who lives in Southern New Castle County, agrees: "There is no real 'car culture' as far as I've noticed. There do seem to be a large number of pickups in the southern part of the state, and a lot of minivans where I live." These car choices reflect the practical needs that Delaware drivers have – pickups are useful in the southern, more agricultural part of the state, and minivans make sense for suburban families.
However, there is one aspect to Delaware car culture that is absolutely unique to the state: the status attached to license plate numbers. Erica Hassler writes: "Your license plate is a huge deal in Delaware. The lower the number, the higher the price tag. In addition, it is a badge of honor to have original or old-colored plates."
The story behind the preference for low numbers and certain color plates started over a century ago, when Delaware began issuing license plates in numerical order. The first people to own cars in Delaware – and thereby get the low-numbered plates – were wealthy, meaning this minor bureaucratic decision launched an unintentional statewide status symbol.
And though it may seem odd to anyone outside of Delaware, these low-numbered license plates are worth big money. According to Delaware Online, the state's "vehicle registration rules allow for the plates to be transferred and passed down through generations, upping the value of low numbers and the interest for auctions in the state." In 2008, the plate number 11 sold at auction for a staggering $675,000 after the previous owner of the plate passed away.
Urban vs. Rural Driving
As a small state that is criss-crossed by toll roads and interstate highways that connect Delaware to its closest neighbors, it comes as no surprise the majority of vehicle miles traveled occur on urban, rather than rural roads. According to studies of driving patterns from 2015, 67.2 percent of vehicle miles driven in Delaware are on urban roads.
You might assume that urban driving increases your chances of getting into a serious car accident, but the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has found the opposite to be true: car crash deaths per 100 million miles traveled is 2.6 times higher in rural areas compared to urban areas. While increased congestion experienced during urban driving increases the opportunity for car accidents, urban accidents are more likely to occur at lower speeds and in closer proximity to emergency help – which makes them more survivable.
The accident fatality statistics in Delaware bear this out. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 59 percent of Delaware's 101 fatal car accidents in the year 2010 occurred on rural roads, despite the fact that less than 33 percent of vehicle miles were driven on those roads.
However, just because accidents on urban roads lead to fewer fatalities does not mean that drivers should relax their vigilance on major urban roads. In particular, Lynch laments the summer traffic on the major highways: "It's not really stressful to drive where I live, except in summers. Then it's nuts! Beach traffic is no joke."
Delaware Gas Prices
Delawareans are proud of the fact that they do not pay sales tax, which is a major relief for their wallets. But that's not the only way you can save money in the Diamond State – the price at the gas pump trends somewhat lower in Delaware than it does nationally. As of Oct. 19, 2017, average national cost of a gallon of regular unleaded was $2.457 per gallon. In Delaware, however, the average cost was $2.279 per gallon.
Low gas prices are great news for your bottom line, but it is important to remember the relationship between gas prices and driving behavior. When gas is more affordable, more people are on the road, which increases the likelihood of accidents.
Miles on the Odometer
The size of the state does not determine the number of miles the average driver puts on his or her car. Despite living in one of the smallest states in the nation, Delaware drivers put higher-than-average miles on their vehicles. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which compiles the data on the average number of miles Americans drive, the national average number of vehicle miles driven per licensed driver in 2014 was 13,476 miles per year. In Delaware, however, licensed drivers put an average of 14,802 miles on their vehicles in that year.
Some of that additional mileage stems from the fact that many Delaware residents commute to cities in neighboring states. According to Hassler, "Many people have cars that allow them good mileage so they can work in Philadelphia or Baltimore, but live in Delaware where it is more affordable."
Of course, in addition to the time they spend in the car, Delaware commuters also have to think about the costs of putting so many miles on their vehicles each year. The more wear-and-tear you put on your car, the more you will have to spend on regular and irregular maintenance – which includes everything from oil changes to tire rotation. The financial blog My Money Design has calculated that such maintenance costs drivers approximately $0.26 per mile. This means that Delaware drivers putting the average of 14,802 miles per year on their cars can expect to spend approximately $3,849 per year on vehicle maintenance, as compared to the $3,504 the average American will spend.
Unemployment and Driving
Employment may seem unrelated to driving, but there is a distinct connection between the two: as unemployment goes down, there are more cars on the road. This is in part because employed individuals need to drive to get to and from work, and in part because employed workers have the disposable income to spend on entertainment and dining out that requires them to drive.
As of September 2017, the national unemployment rate was 4.2 percent, whereas Delaware's unemployment rate was slightly higher at 4.9 percent, making it 38th in the nation for employment. While Delaware's unemployment ranking is not necessarily good news for the state's economy, it may lead to fewer accidents since those who are unemployed are spending less time behind the wheel.
Distracted Driving in Delaware
Cell phones and tablets have become a ubiquitous part of our lives – which means drivers sometimes have trouble putting the electronics down when they are on the road. While any number of unnecessary behaviors can pull drivers' eyes from the road and hands from the steering wheel, cell phones are one of the biggest preventable distractors for drivers. 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.
Delaware is well aware of this problem within its state. According to Delaware Online, since 2008, an average of 113 people have died annually on Delaware roads because of distracted driving. This is why the state has enacted some relatively stringent anti-distraction laws. These include a total ban on any handheld use of cell phones or other electronic devices for all drivers, a total ban on texting while driving for all drivers, and a ban on hands-free cell phone use for bus drivers and novice drivers.
Each of these bans are considered primary offenses, which means that police can pull over drivers solely for violating any of these bans. Anyone caught breaking any of these anti-distraction laws will be subject to an initial fine of about $106, rising to as much as $350 for repeat infractions.
First Time Drivers in the First State
Teens have a lot to learn when they first get behind the wheel before they are fully qualified as licensed drivers. To help make sure teens have the structure and support they need to learn the rules of the road safely, Delaware has a graduated licensing program for teens that supports new drivers as they master the skills they need.
When a Delaware teen turns 16 and has completed a Delaware Driver Education Course, he or she may apply for a Level One Learner's Permit. With this permit, a teen may drive only with a licensed driver age 25 or older supervising and sitting in the front seat. The teen must hold this learner's permit for at least 6 months and complete at least 50 hours of practice driving, including 10 hours at night, before advancing to the next stage. After holding the Level One Learner's Permit for six months and submitting parent-certified records of the 50 hours of driving practice, teens can drive on the permit without adult supervision, although they may not drive with more than one non-family passenger under the age of 18. In addition, the law prohibits permit-holders from driving between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
A 17-year-old teen who has held a learner's permit for a full year may apply for the full, unrestricted driver's license. Any teen who has not completed driver education must wait until age 18 to apply for a license.
The State of Driving in Delaware
From beach traffic to long commutes into the cities in neighboring states, getting behind the wheel in Delaware offers any number of potential hazards and challenges. So before you hit the road in the First State, make sure you're aware of what to expect so you can make the safest possible driving choices.