From its quiet scenic byways to the interstates connecting Baltimore with the nation’s capital, Maryland is a state made for driving. While rural areas may offer a leisurely driving experience, urban highways can test a driver’s patience and skill. Maryland doesn’t have a high rate of fatal crashes, but it’s worth noting that multiple surveys have ranked its drivers as some of the worst in the country. Aggressive driving has also been a persistent problem that has sparked a crackdown from authorities in recent years. Here are some things to know before taking the wheel in the Old Line State.
Maryland may not be known as a historic capital of automobiles, but drivers here spend a lot of time in their cars. According to the American Community Survey, Marylanders have the longest commute times in the nation at an average of 32 minutes each way.
The state has a history of not only driving vehicles but also of making them. The Broening Highway General Motors Plant, more commonly known as the Baltimore Assembly, operated from 1935 to 2005 and had produced Buicks, Chevrolets, Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs and Chevrolet Trucks. More than three million Astro and Safari vans were built at the plant before it closed and was demolished to become the Chesapeake Commerce Center.
Marylanders also have a love for auto racing and vintage cars. As of May 2017, the Classic Motor Museum in the historic town of St. Michaels was preparing to open to the public with a large collection of classic cars in an exhibit barn. BMW motorcycle enthusiasts can also find more than 60 classic BMW bikes and sidecars at The Vintage BMW Motorcycle Museum in Jessup. There are also a number of annual car shows in the state including the OC Car Show in Ocean City which is one of the hottest and longest-running shows on the East Coast.
High speed racing fans will also find drag racing at the Maryland International Raceway in Mechanicsville. In Upper Marlboro, the Marlboro Raceway features a 1/3 mile banked oval racetrack with shows and events for the whole family. Originally built in 1952 as a dirt oval for stock race cars it was eventually paved into a 1.7-mile track. The facility closed in 1970 but recently reopened. Maryland has a long history of stock car racing which is documented in articles and photos at the Maryland Stock Car Racing Hall of Fame web site. Auto racing in Baltimore goes back at least a century to the early-1900s when cars would race at the Gentleman’s Driving Park. At one time, there were more than ten stock car tracks in the city, with the last one, the Dorsey Speedway operating until 1985.
Those who aren’t into speed and want to know what road travel was like before the internal combustion engine will find carriages on display at the Thrasher Carriage Museum in Frostburg.
From Baltimore Freeways to Scenic Byways
Driving in Maryland can be quite diverse, ranging from a white-knuckle, hair-raising experience on the freeways around Baltimore to a slow cruise down a gravel road in Frederick County. Maryland is considered the 14th most “urbanized” state in the nation with more than 80 percent of its population living in urban areas. It also has one of the highest population densities of any state with an average of 594.8 people per square mile. Rapid population growth in the past 25 years has also increased the amount of cars on the roads.
Major highways in the state include I-95, I-81, I-83, I-70 and I-68. As of 2014, urban roads accounted for 66 percent of fatalities while rural roads accounted for only 34 percent. That’s the opposite from national trends and where rural roads account for most fatalities.
In an attempt to reduce congestion in some areas, state legislators are considering a crackdown on drivers who linger in the left lane. Those who hang out in the left lane too long and don’t use it exclusively for passing could face fines of up to $250. Advocates say those who drive slowly in the left lane create bottlenecks and also force other drivers to pass on the right where they have bigger blind spots.
Like many states in the Northeast, winter can present hazardous driving conditions in both rural and urban areas with snowy and iced roads. The Maryland State Highway Administration offers a number of safe winter driving tips that include reducing speed, taking extra caution on bridges and giving snow plows adequate distance.
Despite its urbanization, Maryland still has wide-open spaces and some quite beautiful rural roads on the edges of the state away from the Baltimore-D.C. area. There are more than 60 miles of gravel road in Frederick County with a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving them. The state is also home to more than a dozen scenic byways that lead drivers through small towns, past historic sites, and along mountain passes and winding river banks.
Maryland is ranked the 28th best state for transportation based on commute times and the quality of bridges, roads and public transportation. While other factors weigh it down, the state does rank number 4 in the quality of its public transportation. The state is also trying to take the lead in some automotive innovation. At the end of 2016, Gov. Larry Hogan also announced a proposal for I-95 and other arteries around the Baltimore area to be used as a testing ground for driverless cars by 2018.
Marylanders don’t rack up as many miles as the typical U.S. driver. According to data from the Federal Highway Administration, drivers in Maryland logged 11,759 vehicle miles per licensed driver, compared to a national average of 14,425.
And while many drivers do commute to neighboring states, those drives are relatively short. Washington, DC is only 35 miles away. An estimated 220,000 people commute from Maryland to the capital daily while another 140,000 drivers commute to Baltimore. All traffic moves through Baltimore with I-95 and I-70 being the main thoroughfares.
At only 12,407 total square miles, Maryland is the 9th smallest state in the country, just behind Massachusetts and right ahead of Virginia. While drivers in the state don’t log lots of miles or extensive distances, they do spend a lot of time in their vehicles with exceptionally long commute times. The state recently introduced a plan to improve safety and reduce congestion on I-270 (a major commuting route between the suburbs and the Capital Beltway) by creating new stretches of lane without widening the highway. The $100 million plan would also add signal meters to on-ramps to control how quickly traffic can merge onto the highway, and overhead displays would also give more information about crashes or delays.
As of mid-May 2017, the American Automobile Association reported that the average cost of a gallon of gas in Maryland was $2.30 per gallon, right on par with the national average. Gas prices tend to be less expensive in Salisbury and Baltimore and cost the most in Cumberland where they average $2.41 per gallon.
The state’s gas tax has been on the rise since 2013 when lawmakers approved several increases with regular raises to adjust for inflation. Since then, gas prices have risen more than a dime. The Tax Foundation notes that Maryland has the 15th highest gas taxes in the nation at $.34 per gallon, compared to the most expensive of $.58 per gallon in Pennsylvania and the lowest of $.12 per gallon in Alaska.
Drivers can reduce their gas consumption by keeping their tires properly inflated, maintaining a consistent speed limit on the highway and aiming for routes that reduce their time in traffic.
As of March 2017, Maryland’s unemployment rate stood near the national average of 4.2 percent. That has been on a steady decline from a peak of 7.7 percent in 2010. The economy and a state’s unemployment rate can at times impact highway safety. The reasoning behind this is that as the unemployment rate falls, more people take to the highways, creating more accidents and fatalities. Michael Morrisey, Ph.D., professor at the School of Public Health at Texas A&M, told ScienceDaily.com that on a national level, each one percentage point decrease in the overall unemployment rate is associated with a 9 percent increase in national fatalities.
The number of traffic fatalities in the state has been on the rise. In 2015, 520 people died in traffic-related crashes on Maryland’s roadways, a 17 percent increase over the 443 people killed in accidents in 2014.
Distracted and Dangerous Driving
As it is in many other states, distracted driving is a growing problem in Maryland. According to the Maryland Department of Transportation, distracted driving causes 185 deaths and 27,000 injuries in the state every year. Maryland prohibits drivers from using a cell phone without a hands-free device while operating a motor vehicle. Laws also prohibit drivers from texting while driving.
Baltimore drivers have also consistently been ranked as some of the worst and most aggressive in the country. While total crashes and injury rates attributed to aggressive driving have been on the decline since 2014, it’s still a problem. The Driver’s Seat Road Rage Survey by Auto Vantage placed Baltimore third in the ranking of “least courteous” drivers. Road rage has also been noted as a growing problem in the state, specifically in Baltimore with a number of high profile incidents in recent years.
As per the state’s aggressive driving law (TR 21-901.2), authorities can charge a driver with aggressive driving when they observe at least three violations such as following too closely, failure to yield, speeding, aggressively overtaking/passing, or driving on laned roadways. Aggressive drivers can be fined $370 and have up to five points placed on their license.
Smooth Operator, a public safety initiative and partnership between law enforcement and public safety officials in D.C. and Maryland, aims to crack down on aggressive driving in the area. In 2012, the campaign issued nearly 400,000 citations. Drivers can reduce distraction by setting themselves up for success and eliminating distracting activities like eating, conflict, and attending to children.
One good note is that fatalities of pedestrians fell by roughly 13 percent between 2015 and 2016, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. It noted a number of pedestrian safety programs in Maryland including Walk Smart in Ocean City and Street Smart in Baltimore which features public service announcements and commercials about sharing the road with pedestrians and cyclists. Maryland has also formed the Pedestrian & Bicycle Emphasis Area Team which is coordinating efforts across the state to reduce pedestrian crashes, injuries and fatalities.
In 2016, the state kicked off its Maryland Strategic Highway Safety Plan (SHSP), a five-year plan with 30 strategies to reduce highway fatalities by at least 50 percent in the next two decades.
An analysis by CarInsurance.com found that Maryland is the safest state in the nation for teen drivers based on teen driver fatalities, licensing laws, teen drunk driving rates, texting and driving rates, and the cost of insurance. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention Youth Risk Behavior reports that the state’s rate of teen fatal accidents was the lowest in the nation at only 0.3 per 100,000.
Maryland has a graduated licensing program for new drivers. Young drivers can apply for a learner’s permit at the age of 15 years and 9 months. Those under the age of 16 must provide a completed verification of identity and school attendance form (#DL-300), and those under the age of 18 must also have the application co-signed by a parent or co-guardian. All applicants must pass a vision screening and knowledge test.
At age 16 and 6 months, drivers can then obtain a provisional drivers license. These drivers can drive alone but those under the age of 18 can not drive with others under the age of 18 and may not drive between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m. After holding a provisional license for 18 months with a clean driving record, drivers can then apply for a full license.
Holders of learners permits under age 18 are prohibited from using phones (including with Blue Tooth or hands-free) while operating a vehicle, except to call 911. Permit holders must also be accompanied by a qualified supervising driver who is age 21 or older, and has held a license for at least three years.
Those under the age of 25 must also hold their permit for a minimum of nine months, maintain a conviction-free driving record, and complete a Maryland MVA approved driver education course.
Thanks to new technologies, parents now have a number of options to better monitor their teen’s driving habits. This includes devices that can send destination alerts, updates on speed limits and the radio volume.
Auto Insurance Requirements
Maryland has slightly higher insurance requirements than other states. The Maryland Department of Transportation Motor Vehicle Administration requires that at a bare minimum, drivers must carry insurance that covers:
- $30,000 for injury/death to one person per accident
- $60,000 for injury/death to more than one person per accident
- $15,000 for damage to property per accident
Many drivers carry more liability coverage and also carry comprehensive and collision coverage for newer vehicles.
Drivers are required to carry proof of insurance at all times and can face a fine of $150 for the first 30 days and $7 for each additional day thereafter. The vehicle registration will also be suspended, and those driving with a suspended registration may have their vehicle impounded.
Driving in Maryland
From the freeways of Baltimore to lonely rural roads in the western part of the state, Maryland isn’t quite the best place for driving, but it’s manageable provided you drive cautiously. Stay patient on the freeways, remain vigilant for careless or distracted drivers, and try to enjoy the ride.