Driving in Vermont
Unless you get stuck behind a slow-driving flatlander who is gawking at the gorgeous autumn foliage, the covered bridges, or the serene depths of Lake Champlain in the hopes of seeing the mythical lake monster, Champ, it's unlikely that you will encounter much traffic on the rolling roads of Vermont. The Green Mountain state is the second-least populous state in the nation (just behind Wyoming), which translates to fewer cars on the road.
But although the less-congested roads winding throughout Vermont boast breathtaking natural scenery – with nary a billboard to compromise your view of the beauties of nature – driving in Vermont is not always an idyllic experience. Between the realities of New England's sometimes-harsh weather, as well as the unique challenges facing drivers on Vermont's roads, it is important to understand just what to expect before you get behind the wheel. Here's what you need to know about the state of driving in Vermont:
Vermont Automobile Insurance
Vermont requires drivers to carry liability insurance with the following minimums:
- $25,000 for injury/death to one person per accident
- $50,000 for injury/death to more than one person per accident
- $10,000 for damage to property per accident
In addition to these minimums, Vermont also requires drivers to carry uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage with minimum limits of $50,000 for one person and $100,000 for two or more people for bodily injury coverage. Approximately 6.8 percent of Vermont motorists are uninsured, so many drivers will choose to purchase more than the minimum coverage to make sure they can financially handle a car accident with an uninsured driver.
Environmentalism and Vermont's Car Culture
Vermont is known for its commitment to environmentalism, which extends to how citizens view their cars. According to Ohio native Megan McBride, who attended graduate school in Brattleboro, people thought "cars should either be capable of driving up steep unplowed roads, or they must be eco-friendly. It was a fairly practical way to view cars."
Of course, the pragmatism of owning a good snow car is not just about the harshness of Vermont's winter weather. It's also related to the state's commitment to environmentalism. For instance, since she grew up in snowy Cleveland, Ohio, McBride found Vermont's winter weather similar to that of her hometown. But in Vermont, they didn't treat the snowy roads the same way Ohio did: "For environmental reasons, they limit road salt and don't plow as much, either." The expectation in Vermont is that drivers will adjust to snowy conditions while the state makes roads as safe as possible without affecting the ecosystem.
The concern about the environmental impact of driving extends to buying eco-friendly vehicles and converting traditional vehicles into more environmentally responsible cars. Not only does the state offer incentives to encourage everything from biodiesel to electric vehicles, but there is also a thriving industry of mechanics that will help car owners convert their vehicles to biodiesel and other initiatives that help align drivers with their environmental goals.
Rural vs. Urban Driving
There is no getting around the fact that Vermont is a rural state. It boasts the smallest state capital in the country by population, but even the largest city in the state, Burlington, has fewer than 39,000 residents. This makes it perfectly understandable why 73.9 percent of the vehicle miles driven in Vermont are in rural areas.
Unfortunately, the higher frequency of rural driving does affect the safety of Vermont's drivers. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, rural roads are more dangerous than urban roads – car crash deaths per 100 million miles traveled is 2.6 times higher in rural areas compared to urban areas. This may seem counterintuitive, since city driving, with its increased congestion, increases the opportunity for car accidents. However, accidents on urban roads often happen at lower speeds, and take place closer to emergency help, making them more survivable than accidents on rural roads.
Vermont's fatality rate bears out these trends. In 2016, 52 of the state's total of 62 traffic fatalities occurred in rural areas. This meant that even though just under 74 percent of the vehicle miles driven happen on rural roads, 84 percent of the fatalities occur there.
Whether you regularly drive in downtown Burlington or on lonely roads that wind through farmland, it is also important to recognize the high incidence of drinking and driving in the state. According to a 2016 survey by SmartAsset, Vermont leads the nation in DUI arrests per driver, with 50 arrests per 1,000 drivers. Drinking and driving is a problem that knows no specific geographical location, so all drivers should take care on the road, whether they are in an urban or a rural environment.
Miles Driven in Vermont
Each year, the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) compiles the data on the average number of miles Americans drive. As of 2014, the most recent year for which FHWA has calculated the numbers, the average American drove 13,476 miles per year. Vermonters were very much in line with Americans as a whole, averaging 13,458 miles per year.
While the number of miles you put on your car in any given year may seem like a mildly interesting data point, it is an important part of understanding the true costs of car ownership. That's because the more miles you put on your car, the more you will need to spend on both regular and irregular vehicle maintenance, such as oil changes, tire rotation, and brake pad replacement.
The financial blog My Money Design calculates that the cost of such maintenance is approximately $0.26/mile. This means average Americans and average Vermonters can both expect to pay approximately $3,500 per year in vehicle maintenance.
However, vehicle maintenance costs also depend on where you are driving, in addition to how much. As of 2015, the Washington Post reported that 23 percent of Vermont's roads are in poor condition, which is defined as having "so many major ruts, cracks, and potholes that they can't simply be resurfaced – they need to be completely rebuilt." With nearly 1 out of every 4 roads in the state in poor condition, drivers can expect to pay another $474 per year in extra annual vehicle operation and maintenance costs.
The Cost of a Fill-Up
As of April 9, 2018, the national average cost of a gallon of regular unleaded gas was $2.661. Vermonters have to pay essentially the same price, with an average statewide cost of $2.662 per gallon. It's important to remember that fluctuations in gas prices can affect driving behavior. When fuel prices are lower, more people can afford to drive, which means more cars on the road, and a higher likelihood for accidents.
The eco-consciousness of the average Vermonter does tend to help them save money on gas, since conserving fuel is good for both the environment and your wallet. This commitment to environmentalism may also help to smooth out the kinds of driving fluctuations that occur with changes in gas prices in other states. Since conservation is part of Vermont's culture, people are more likely to maintain their normal level of driving as gas prices go down, as they are already cognizant of the environmental costs of their driving.
Unemployment and Driving
There are a number of factors that can affect how many drivers are on the road – including the unemployment rate of a state. While the rate of employment and the number of cars on the road might seem unrelated, the connection becomes clear if you think about what the level of employment of a state means: employed workers are individuals who need to get to and from their place of employment. In addition, the higher employment indicates a stronger economy, which means people are enjoying more disposable income – and therefore driving more to go out to dinner, shop, go on vacation, or attend sporting or cultural events.
As of March 2018, the national unemployment rate was 4.1 percent. Vermont boasted an unemployment rate of 2.8 percent in February 2018, the latest available data from the Bureau of Labor. This puts Vermont tied with Nebraska for the fourth lowest unemployment rate in the U.S.
Distracted Driving in the Green Mountain State
Back in 1968, Vermont took the historic step of banning billboards in order to keep the "road corridors free of visual clutter." While the original authors of the ban could never have anticipated the 21st century's problem with distracted driving , they certainly did recognize the fact that a driver should focus on the road, rather than on "visual clutter."
Unfortunately, modern Vermont drivers have not learned the lesson that they need to remove digital distractions. According to an April 2017 study by the research firm Zendrive, Vermont ranked as the most distracted state in the nation. This study collected smartphone data from anonymized users across the nation and analyzed 3 million drivers over 5.6 billion miles driven.
What is most surprising about Vermont's terrible ranking for distracted driving is the fact that the state does have a ban in place for handheld cell phone use. According to Zendrive's analysis, such bans do seem to lower the rate of distracted driving in other states. Drivers caught violating this ban are subject to a fine, as well as 2-5 points put on their license. Any driver who accumulates 10 or more points on their license within two years will have their license suspended.
Although all of Vermont's drivers are accountable for the level of distracted driving that is plaguing the state, teen drivers in particular need to learn to put their phones aside when they get behind the wheel. That's because, as of 2015 “distraction was a factor in nearly 6 out of 10 moderate-to-severe teen crashes" according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. In addition, since teens are just learning their driving skills, they are among the most vulnerable and dangerous drivers on the road.
This is why Vermont is one of many states that enforces graduated licensing requirements for teen drivers. In order to become a fully licensed driver, a teen must follow these steps:
- Learner's Permit: At age 15, teens can apply for a learner's permit if they have no violations on record with the Vermont DMV. There is a written and vision test that teens must pass to receive their learner's permit. With the permit, teens may only drive a motor vehicle if accompanied by a parent or guardian, a certified driver education instructor or an individual at least 25 years of age.
- Junior License: As of age 16, teens may apply for a junior license. To be eligible for this license the teen must have held a learner's permit for at least one year, completed an approved driver education program with at least 30 hours of classroom instruction, six hours of behind-the-wheel instruction, and six hours of observation, and completed at least 40 hours of driving practice, including at least 10 hours of practice at night. On a junior license, a teen may not drive with passengers for the three months of licensure, and may only drive with family members for the second three months of licensure.
- Full License: After holding a junior license for six months, teens are eligible for a full unrestricted license. The state does not place night or passenger restrictions on those with full licenses, although parents are encouraged to set their own rules.
The State of Driving in Vermont
In addition to its scenic routes and seasonal beauty, the Green Mountain State offers unique challenges and hazards to any driver. Understanding what to expect from Vermont's winding roads will help you make the safest decisions behind the wheel.