The Commonwealth of Kentucky is most known for horse racing, whiskey and tobacco. But it’s also a land of natural beauty with more navigable miles of water than every other state in the union except for Alaska. Whether on the bustling freeways of the cities or quiet rural roads, driving is the main mode of transportation. Kentucky isn’t a hard state to drive in, but it does have its quirks. Rural roads aren’t always in the best shape and during winter, the occasional snow and ice can create hazardous conditions. Here’s what you need to know before taking the wheel in Kentucky.
From the mountainous Appalachian communities in the east to the growing suburban sprawl of Louisville, Kentuckians are intricately tied to and enamored with automobiles. Cars aren’t just a means of transportation here but an economic driver, a past time and a form of entertainment. Based on the number of vehicles produced annually, Kentucky is the third-largest market for automobile manufacturing behind Michigan and Ohio. Nearly 500 automotive manufacturing firms and sites around the state produce parts and vehicles for use around the world. Toyota recently announced a record $1.3 billion investment to upgrade its assembly plant in Georgetown which is the company’s largest facility in the world and employs 8,200 people.
The auto industry’s roots in the state go back to at least 1909 when the Lexington Motor Company was founded in Lexington. While the vehicles were ultimately manufactured in Connerseville, Ind., the Lexington remained a popular automotive model through the 1920s and featured a four-cylinder engine, 116-inch wheelbase and multiple body styles.
The state’s early auto history is still preserved in a number of museums such as the Swope Auto Museum in Elizabeth which features dozens of cars from all makes and models between the early 1900s and the 1960s. In Bowling Green, the National Corvette Museum is home to more than 80 Corvettes including prototypes, mint classics and modern models.
And speaking of fast cars, NASCAR has a strong following here with high-speed action at the Kentucky Speedway in Sparta. The track features grandstands that seat up to 100,000 fans, and it has hosted the IndyCar Series, Camping World Truck Series and Monster Energy NASCAR Cup.
Ordinary drivers may find many of the state’s roads are best enjoyed at a leisurely pace. From the Appalachian mountains in the east to the western stretches of the state near Ohio, Kentucky is home to a number of scenic byways that take drivers through the state’s rich natural and cultural history. In eastern Kentucky, the Kentucky Country Music Highway features sights and attractions that capture the region’s history with live music, adventure and Appalachian cuisine. Outside of Lexington, the 46-mile Red River Gorge Scenic Highway runs past caves, cliff, ravines, water flows, and stone arches. And for those who want to savor the state’s world-renowned distilled spirits, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail offers a self-guided tour of more than a dozen distilleries.
Drivers with high clearance and 4-wheel-drive will find Kentucky to be an off-road paradise with hundreds of miles of unpaved roads through mountainous wilderness. The Black Mountain Off-Road Adventure Area and the Rush Off-Road each feature more than 100 miles of off-road trails through thousands of acres of forest.
There are a growing number of drivers and vehicles on Kentucky’s highways. The U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration reports that traffic volume grew by 5.2 percent between 2015 and 2016. It was the highest growth rate of any state in the South and well above the average state traffic growth rate of 2.2 percent.
The Census Bureau reports that the average driver in the United States spends roughly 25 minutes commuting to work. Commute times in Kentucky’s two largest cities are less than the national average at 23 minutes in Louisville and 21 minutes in Lexington. Carpooling also isn’t very popular here as 84 percent of drivers in Louisville and 79 percent of drivers in Lexington, say they drive to work alone.
Crossing the Bluegrass State
Although it is officially considered a southern state, Kentucky’s central location gives it ties to the Midwest and the Heartland and puts it in proximity to the Northeast. As a medium-sized state, it encompasses roughly 40,000 square miles and is comparable in size to Virginia, Ohio and Tennessee.
In 2014, Kentucky ranked 26th in the number of miles of public road with nearly 80,000 miles of roadway, much less than the 123,000 miles of roadway in Ohio and 95,500 miles in Tennessee. Kentucky is also right around the middle in population density with 101 people per square mile, compared to 1,134 people per square mile in New Jersey and 1.1 people per square mile in Alaska. Changes in how and where people live in the state are also impacting traffic and road conditions. Despite its large swaths of rural areas, Kentucky is following a national trend of urbanization. Estimates from the Census Bureau find that over the past five years rural area populations continue to decline while numbers in the “golden triangle” region continued to grow. Of the state’s 1.8 percent growth in population between 2010 and 2015, almost all occurred in cities. Lee County, one of the poorest counties in the nation, lost more than 12 percent of its residents during that time.
While there’s more traffic in larger urban areas like Louisville and Lexington, it’s pale in comparison to large cities around the U.S. The Tom Tom Traffic Index ranks Louisville as #160 out of #189 for worst traffic, right behind Memphis and just ahead of El Paso.
Due to population growth in some urban areas, some infrastructure is in dire need of an upgrade. The Brent Spence Bridge, which spans the Ohio River between Cincinnati, Ohio, and Covington, Ky., was constructed in 1963 to carry 85,000 vehicles per day. It now carries 155,000 vehicles per day. Pieces of concrete fell off the bridge in 2011, and in May 2016, a Washington, D.C. publication called it the top “infrastructure emergency” in the United States.
Outside of the cities, Kentucky’s back roads can also be strikingly beautiful and entice motorcyclists and road warriors in search of rural adventure.
Winter can present some challenging driving environments in both rural and urban areas with heavy snow and ice. The Kentucky Office of Highway Safety offers some winter driving tips. The Four P’s of Safe Winter Driving are: preparation, planning, prevention of crashes and protection in an emergency. The office also encourages drivers to share the road with snow plows by being patient and giving them distance as the snow clouds they create can limit visibility.
Some of Kentucky’s roads are also poorly maintained. TRIP, a Washington-based nonprofit supported by transportation interests, found that 45 percent of Kentucky’s locally and state-maintained roads are in poor condition. Overall, this adds up to 41 hours extra travel time per year and an extra $989 in costs for the average state driver. Drivers in northern Kentucky spend an additional $1,700 per year in extra fuel, time and maintenance due to deteriorating or congested roadways.
Gassing Up in the Bluegrass State
As of mid-April, the Bluegrass State had relatively low gas prices at $2.34 per gallon compared to the national average of $2.40, according to the American Automobile Association. The Tax Foundation says Kentucky has the 31st highest gas taxes at an average of $.26 per gallon compared to $.58 per gallon in Pennsylvania (#1) and only $.12 per gallon in Alaska (#50).
To save on gas, drive the speed limit, keep the tires properly inflated, avoid stop and go traffic, maintain a safe distance between other vehicles and to drive at a consistent speed.
A state’s unemployment rate can impact driving conditions because more people working puts more drivers on the roads and increases the likelihood of accidents.
Yet Kentucky may be an outlier in that trend because it has both high unemployment and a high accident rate. The state’s economy has been improving, but its 5 percent unemployment rate in March 2017 was still higher than the national average of 4.5 percent.
Despite growth in some urban areas, Kentucky remains home to some of the poorest counties in the U.S. Due to the challenges of the coal production process and shifts to more renewable forms of energy, many of these areas have been hit even harder with big job losses in the coal industry. As of February 2017, the unemployment rate in Harlan County was more than double the national average.
While parts of rural Kentucky have high unemployment, they also have a high accident rate due to road conditions and impairment. According to Cars.com, Kentucky remains one of the top ten most dangerous states for rural driving.
Distracted and Dangerous Driving
Distracted, dangerous and drunk driving can be a problem in Kentucky.
Yahoo Travel/Thrillist analyzed data from the NHTSA’s Fatal Accident Reporting System and determined how likely a state’s drivers were to die in car accidents. It ranked Kentucky as the 14th most dangerous state with drivers having a 1 in 3,464 chance of being involved in a fatal car crash and a 1 in 7,000 chance of dying in one. The top three riskiest states included Montana, Mississippi and North Dakota while the states where drivers were least likely to die in a car crash were Washington, D.C., Massachusetts and New Jersey.
A 2014 report by the Kentucky State Police found that although Kentucky’s vehicular fatality rate fell substantially between 2004 and 2014 it is still higher than the national average. Injury and crash rates are also comparably high with 1 in 17 drivers being involved in some sort of traffic collision in 2014 and 1 in 145 being injured.
Impaired driving can also be a concern in some rural parts of the state. A university study examined more than 21,000 substance abuse assessment records for persons convicted of DUI in Kentucky. It found that severity among offenders may be greater in rural areas due to lack of treatment services in very remote areas.
Even when sober, drivers can still be a danger if they’re distracted. In 2010 the state signed into law a prohibition on all drivers from texting while the vehicle is in motion. For drivers 18 and over, it allows the use of GPS devices and for reading, selecting or entering a phone number or name for the purpose of making a call. Yet critics have been calling for a total ban, saying the law’s ambiguity makes it difficult to enforce.
To reduce what it says is a growing nighttime distraction of colored headlights, the state also implemented a new law in March 2017 which prohibits drivers from having any other color headlights than plain white.
With more technology in vehicles, distraction can be a problem for any drivers. The best way to prevent distractions is to be aware and reduce temptation by avoiding distracting devices and activities. Some of the most common driving distractions include: cell phones, interacting with passengers, singing, smoking and adjusting the radio.
Kentucky has a graduated licensing system where drivers move from a learning permit to a full unrestricted license over three stages.
State residents can apply for a learners permit at the age of 16 after passing a vision screening and a written permit test. Those under the age of 21 must hold this permit for six months while applicants over the age of 21 must hold it for 30 days. Anyone driving under a learner’s permit must also be accompanied by a driver over the age of 21. During this phase, they must also complete 60 hours of documented practice driving, including 10 hours of nighttime driving.
After the permit phase and the passage of a driver skills test, drivers under the age of 18 may obtain an intermediate license. These drivers must then complete a state-approved new driver education program. Drivers can then obtain a full, unrestricted license after they meet the criteria listed above. Drivers over the age of 18 who have completed a course and held a permit for 180 days can skip the intermediate license and apply for a full license.
All drivers, regardless of their license status, are subject to the state’s point system which adds points to a record for infractions. This ranges from 3 points for a speeding citation to 4 points for reckless driving and 6 points for committing a hazardous violation that results in an accident. Drivers under the age of 18 who accumulate more than 6 points may have their driving privilege suspended and those over 18 risk suspension when they accumulate 12 or more points. Parents can help keep their teen drivers, and the rest of the public, safe by monitoring their driving habits.
Kentucky’s auto insurance requirements are generally on par with most states. Drivers in Kentucky must carry, at a minimum, liability insurance that will cover:
- $25,000 for bodily injury or death of one person in any one accident
- $50,000 for bodily injury or death of two or more people in any one accident
- $25,000 for injury to or destruction of property of others in any one accident
- $10,000 personal injury protection
Bankrate.com recently ranked Kentucky as the 16th most expensive state in which to own a vehicle based on insurance premiums, repairs and gas. The study reported that Kentuckians paid an average of $848 per year for insurance, compared to $1,277 in Louisiana (highest) and $630 in Iowa (lowest).
The State of Driving in Kentucky
Although Kentucky offers some beautiful areas to drive through, it can also be dangerous and expensive. Even with low gas prices, the cost to insure a vehicle outweighs the savings. Plus, Kentucky is one of the more dangerous states, with a high probably of an accident being caused by distracted driving. If you want to enjoy cruising the rural landscape, or your short commute time to work, buckle up, keep an eye out for distracted drivers and enjoy the ride.