Driving in Rhode Island
Covering just 1,214 square miles, Rhode Island is the smallest U.S. state. But it's the second-most densely populated, and it has 12,915 miles of roads—all of which seem to go somewhere worth visiting. Busy Interstate 95 runs through Rhode Island, but get off the highway and you'll find the lively city streets of the burgeoning capital city, Providence; the quiet roads that wind through picturesque small towns like Bristol and Little Compton; and the scenic routes that lead to favorite beaches like Misquamicut and Napatree Point.
Rhode Island is relatively flat, but its scenery is diverse, and its weather ranges from occasionally severe to seasonally stunning. And for the most part, if you want to fully experience all this state has to offer, it really helps if you own a car.
So whether you're commuting to Pawtucket, taking a leisurely drive down to Little Compton, or crossing the bridge for a weekend in Newport, here's what you need to know before you head out on the road in the Ocean State:
Auto Insurance in Rhode Island
Rhode Island requires drivers to purchase, at minimum, the following insurance coverage:
- Bodily Injury Liability Insurance: $25,000 per person/$50,000 per accident
- Property Damage Liability Insurance: $25,000
- Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist Insurance: $25,000 per person/$50,000 per accident
Liability insurance pays for property damage or injury to others if you are found responsible for a crash. Uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage protects you if you are involved in an accident where the other driver is not properly insured. In Rhode Island, uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage may be declined if a driver chooses to purchase only the minimum required bodily injury and property damage coverage.
Drivers may also purchase additional liability insurance, as well as other types of coverage such as collision, comprehensive, or medical payments coverage.
Rhode Island's Car Culture
Rhode Island is proud of its local quirks, from its very long name – the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations – to its penchant for distinctive beverages: Del's frozen lemonade, iced coffee consumed year round, and coffee milk, the official Rhode Island State Drink, which perplexes out-of-state visitors.
The state also has a history of unusual firsts, like America's first lunch wagon (Providence, 1872), first nine-hole golf course (Newport, 1890), and first all-marble dome atop a building (the Rhode Island State House, completed 1901.)
Unsurprisingly, given how much Rhode Islanders drive today, some of these firsts involve automobiles. The first car race on a track was held in Cranston in 1896, and the first automobile parade took place in Newport in 1899. Also in Newport, in 1904, a judge handed down the first jail sentence for speeding in an automobile. (The guilty driver was going 15 mph.) As it happens, the first traffic law was also written in Newport, all the way back in 1678. It didn't apply to cars, of course: Newport authorities outlawed galloping horses on local streets.
Your Mileage May Vary
Rhode Islanders will know that living in a small state doesn't necessarily mean spending less time on the road. Rhode Islanders drove, on average, 12,781 miles a year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration's most recent statistics. That's fewer miles than the average American covered – 14,425, if you were wondering – but it's similar to the numbers from several much larger states, like Washington (12,873), Pennsylvania (12,435), and Nevada (12,896).
Also unsurprisingly to anyone who's navigated I-95 at rush hour, a lot of that time in the car was spent commuting. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported that as of August 2015, U.S. government data showed that just over 80 percent of Rhode Island workers drove to the office alone, 8 percent carpooled and 4.1 percent walked to work. Though Rhode Island does have public transportation options, especially in the Providence area, just 2.7 percent of commuters got to work using options like Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) buses or Amtrak trains. Rhode Islanders' mean travel time to work was 24.4 minutes, making for a slightly quicker commute than their neighbors in Massachusetts (29 minutes) and Connecticut (25.7 minutes.)
Urban vs. Rural Roads
In 2015, according to The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 84 percent of traffic-related fatalities in Rhode Island were the result of crashes on urban roads, and 16 percent of rural roads. (The total number of fatalities, 45, was the second-lowest in the nation; only the District of Columbia had fewer.) The rural-urban split in Rhode Island traffic deaths was similar to those of its fellow densely populated Southern New England states, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Of course, that doesn't mean you don't need to stay alert and drive carefully in rural areas, too. While Rhode Island's less-traveled byways lead to some of the loveliest historic villages and natural areas in the region, one study of the condition of America's rural roads found them to be the worst in the nation.
The Price of Gas
In early April 2018, the average price of gas in Rhode Island was $2.63 a gallon, just 3 cents higher than the national average of $2.66. However, depending on what part of Rhode Island you find yourself in when you need gas, you might find a different price; GasBuddy shows some cheaper options in Johnston and much more expensive prices in Scituate and Smithfield, among others.
If you want to save on gas no matter what the price happens to be at the pump, you can increase your vehicle's fuel efficiency by changing your daily driving habits.
The Unemployment Rate
In February 2018, Bureau of Labor Statistics data showed that Rhode Island's unemployment rate was 4.5 percent, ranking the Ocean State 33rd out of 50 states. The national unemployment rate for the same month was 4.1 percent. There were slight regional differences in the unemployment numbers; for example, the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training reported 4.5 percent unemployment in the Rhode Island portion of the Norwich-New London-Westerly metropolitan area and 4.3 percent in the Rhode Island portion of the Providence-Warwick area.
Your state's unemployment rate can affect you even if you're not looking for a new job. If you drive, your commute – and your weekend getaway – can change depending on how the local economy is doing. First, a higher employment rate leads to more commuters driving to work, and heavier traffic to navigate. (And in a state like Rhode Island, where urban crashes are already more deadly, this is an added reason to be as careful as possible on the highway at rush hour.) Second, the more people become employed, the more cash they have for leisure activates like shopping, dining out, and filling their gas tank to head to the beach or shopping mall. More paychecks also enable people to buy new cars. So all of that means more rush hour traffic in Cranston and Providence during the week, and more cars trying to get across the Newport Bridge and onto the Block Island Ferry on weekends.
These days, when we think of distracted driving, we usually picture someone texting or checking Twitter behind the wheel. But it can also refer to driving while eating lunch, talking with passengers, or doing anything that takes your attention away from the road. Rhode Island's Office on Highway Safety lists distracted driving as a risky behavior alongside driving under the influence or not wearing a seat belt, noting that if you text and drive, you're “23 times more likely to get into a crash – much higher odds than those driving with a blood alcohol content of .08."
It's also illegal; in the Ocean State, the use of handheld devices while driving is prohibited, with the exception of emergency calls. Beginning in June 2018, drivers caught holding an electronic communication device can be fined up to $100. Drivers under 18 may not use any handheld or hands-free device.
Teen Drivers in Rhode Island
In Rhode Island, driver's licenses are issued by the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV.) If you are between 16 and 18 years old and want to get a driver's license in Rhode Island, your first step is to apply for a Limited Instruction Permit. Applicants must have completed a 33-hour driver education course and passed a written exam. (You may begin the course at age 15 years and 10 months.) The permit is valid for one year, and you may take a road test after holding your permit for six months. You can get a Limited Provisional License after completing a minimum of 50 hours of supervised practice driving (including 10 hours of night driving), and a Full Operator's License once you are 17 years old and have held a Limited Provisional License for at least 12 months.
If you're beginning the process at 18 or older, you can apply for an Instruction Permit. A driver education course is not required, but you will need to take a computerized knowledge exam and pass a road test.
Drivers under 18 are prohibited from using cellphones, both handheld and hands-free.
Rhode Island's DMV publishes a Supervised Driving Guide for parents, but once your new driver moves on to the stage when they're allowed to drive without supervision, you can still keep an eye on their safety by monitoring your teen's driving.
The State of Driving in Rhode Island
Driving in Rhode Island can be frustrating, if you're dealing with winter weather or congested highways. But when you're driving down a country road admiring the fall foliage, or crossing an iconic bridge above boats bobbing in the harbor, this small state can feel like the best place in America to be behind the wheel. But no matter where you're going, keeping yourself informed about local laws and regulations will help you stay safe on the highways and byways of the Ocean State.