From aggressive drivers in Philadelphia to horse drawn buggies in Amish country, the driving experience in Pennsylvania is remarkably varied. The roads themselves run the gamut from mountain-hugging curves to open roads snaking through rolling hills to bustling city streets echoing with horns and screeching brakes. This diversity of vehicles, roads, and drivers can affect the types of driving attitudes, hazards, and challenges Pennsylvanians face whenever they get behind the wheel.
No matter what part of Pennsylvania you’re in, understanding the specific issues facing drivers in your state can help you to make the best possible decisions—both on the road and off—to stay safe. Here’s what you need to know before putting rubber to the road in the Keystone State.
Car Culture in the Keystone State
Pennsylvanians tend to drive practical cars. According to Kelly Whalen, who lived with her family in the suburbs of Philadelphia until 2016, “most people drive SUVs and minivans or sedans. You don’t see many older cars on the road because of winter weather and the salt that is put down in the winter.”
But just because most Pennsylvanians drive practical vehicles doesn’t negate the state’s long-standing love affair with cars. To begin with, Pennsylvania is home to dozens of race tracks, ranging from dirt tracks to go-kart tracks to the enormous Pocono Raceway, the Indycar and NASCAR race track that seats more than 76,000 fans.
Pennsylvania is also a proud steward of automotive history. In addition to the Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) Museum in Hershey, which exhibits vintage vehicles from the 1890s through the 1980s, the state is also home to the Mack Trucks historical museum in Allentown, and the Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum in Philadelphia, where you can see one of the world’s greatest collections of racing sports cars.
Unfortunately, the Pennsylvanian love for racing does seem to extend somewhat to average drivers. According to Alaina Tweddale, who lives in Bucks County, “we tend to drive fast here in Pennsylvania. It’s common practice to drive 10 miles per hour over the speed limit. I didn’t realize this behavior was specific to Pennsylvania until I moved to Virginia for a few years and got pulled over for speeding a few times. That was a hard lesson to learn!” This Keystone need for speed helps to explain why speed is the most common cause of crashes in Pennsylvania.
Miles Driven in Pennsylvania
The average American driver put about 13,476 miles on her car in the year 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration. However, Pennsylvania drivers spent less time behind the wheel than the average American. Specifically, Pennsylvanians logged only 12,435 miles—more than 1,000 miles fewer than the nationwide average.
The difference in mileage between Pennsylvania drivers and the national average is relatively small, but it can help to reduce the costs of regular vehicle maintenance, such as getting your tires rotated, balanced, and checked, and on irregular maintenance and repair, such as replacing timing belts.
According to the personal finance blog My Money Design, the approximate cost of such regular and irregular car maintenance is about $0.26/mile. So whereas the average American driver can expect to pay approximately $3,504 per year in car maintenance, the average Pennsylvanian driver can expect to pay $3,233 annually.
However, where you drive does affect your vehicle maintenance costs, and Pennsylvania’s poor roads can do a number on your vehicle. The Washington Post reported in 2015 that nearly a quarter of Pennsylvania’s roads are in poor condition, which means “they have so many major ruts, cracks and potholes that they can’t simply be resurfaced—they need to be completely rebuilt.” When almost 1 out of every 4 roads is rutted and cracked, vehicle upkeep costs go up. The Post calculates that Pennsylvanians should expect to pay an additional $471 per year in maintenance related to driving on poor roadways.
Hairpin Curves and City Gridlock
Rural areas are more hazardous for drivers than their urban counterparts according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The rate of car crash deaths per 100 million miles traveled is 2.6 times higher in rural areas compared to urban areas across the country. This may seem counterintuitive, considering how much more congested urban areas are—but even though you are more likely to get into a car accident of some kind in a city, you are also more likely to survive such an accident because it will generally occur at a lower speed and emergency help will be close at hand.
The traffic fatality rates in Pennsylvania support the idea that rural areas truly are more deadly than urban areas. Only about 36% of the vehicle miles traveled in the state are in rural areas, but 616 of the 1,200 traffic fatalities—or about 51%—occurred in rural car accidents.
Although the topography of the Keystone State’s rolling rural roads can add to the hazards of driving on them, one of the unique aspects of rural Pennsylvania involves learning to share the road with Amish buggies. According to Alison Futer Hutchinson, who grew up in Lancaster County, “you have to be extremely careful cresting a hill, because there is a good chance that there will be an Amish buggy or farm machinery in your path on the other side.”
Unfortunately, transplants to Lancaster County and other areas with Amish populations do not necessarily know this. Hutchinson recalls that learning to drive as a teenager included an extra lesson in how to pass a buggy safely. “You had to be able to judge if the traffic coming towards you was far enough away for you to get around a buggy in your lane.” Newcomers to the area don’t have that experience, which can lead to tragedy.
In addition, deer and other wildlife can cause problems for drivers in rural areas. Of course, wildlife does not confine itself to rural roads, even though drivers may not expect an animal appearance in a more urban area. Tweddale was once in a deer-related crash on a major highway in full daylight: “A deer leapt across six lanes of busy turnpike traffic, and eventually jumped headfirst into my windshield. This was during rush hour traffic, so I wasn’t able to maneuver my car out of the deer’s way.”
The Cost of a Fill-Up
Filling your tank in Pennsylvania can take a serious bite out of your wallet. As of April 21, 2017, the national average cost for a gallon of regular unleaded was $2.423, but drivers in Pennsylvania shelled out an average of $2.661 per gallon. This is the seventh highest average gas price in the United States.
Gas prices across the state do vary somewhat, however, with the highest price being $2.718 per gallon in Pittsburgh, and the lowest being $2.594 in Lancaster.
High gas prices have had a big effect on the driving habits of Pennsylvanians. Between 2001 and 2009, 16- to 34-year-olds in Philadelphia dropped the number of miles that they were driving per year by 23 percent—and traffic fatalities have gone down with the reduction in driving. Car crash fatalities in Philadelphia went from a high of 149 deaths in 1997 to 87 deaths in 2011. Though this means driving in Philly has gotten safer over the years, that hasn’t stopped Philadelphia-based magazines from putting together top 10 lists of why you shouldn’t drive there.
The Unemployment Rate
The unemployment rate is an important statistic to know because a state’s level of employment can help you to understand the driving behavior of its residents. To begin with, the lower the unemployment rate, the more drivers there are on the road. Professor Michael A. Morrisey, Ph.D. of Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health has stated that each percentage point drop in unemployment is associated with a 9 percent increase in national traffic fatalities.
Commutes in Pennsylvania are relatively long, at nearly 26 minutes each way, according to the 2014 Census Bureau American Community Survey. (It is important to note that 5.4 percent of workers use public transportation to get to work, which means the state ranks eighth in the nation for public transportation usage.)
The employment rate can also indicate the health of the local and national economy. When the economy is good and employment is high, more people have money to spend on discretionary purchases, meaning they are more likely to drive to restaurants, entertainment, and other events.
Doing anything other than focusing on the road can be dangerous when you are driving, but many drivers think that nothing bad could happen to them when they glance down at their phone.
Distracted driving is a nationwide problem, but it is particularly worrisome in Pennsylvania, where the Department of Transportation (PennDot) has found that it is one of the leading causes of crashes. Even though more fatalities occur in Pennsylvania due to drunk and careless driving, distracted drivers contributed to 13,964 crashes in the Keystone state in 2014 alone.
To remediate the problem of distracted driving, Pennsylvania has made it illegal to text on a cell phone while the vehicle is in motion, although the ban does not extend to use of a GPS. As of 2012, texting while driving became a primary offense, which means that police can pull you over for it without you having committed another offense.
Hand-held devices are currently legal to use while driving, provided you are not texting. However, the Pennsylvania State Senate Transportation Committee is currently considering a new law that would ban hand-held cell phone use entirely as a primary offense, meaning drivers could only use hands-free devices.
As of January of 2017, Daniel’s Law—named for Daniel Gallatin, who was killed by a distracted driver—has increased the potential penalties for drivers who are texting and cause either serious injuries or death. Under this new law, judges will have the option of adding five additional years in prison to the sentence of such drivers.
Teens Behind the Wheel
Inexperience behind the wheel and lower impulse control can handicap teen drivers, which makes them among the most dangerous drivers on the road. In order to help support teens as they learn the rules of the road, Pennsylvania has instituted a three-stage licensing program:
- Stage 1—Learner’s Permit This permit allows teens aged 16 or older, who have passed a physical exam, a vision test, and a written test of driving knowledge, to practice driving with adult supervision. With this permit, a teen must log 65 hours of supervised driving. Driving between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. is prohibited with this permit, with some exceptions. The learner’s permit is valid for one year, and a teen must hold one for at least six months before taking the road test for the junior license.
- Stage 2—Junior License With this license, young drivers have the same 11 p.m. to 5 p.m. driving prohibition, and they cannot carry more than one passenger under age 18 (other than an immediate family member) for the first six months of holding the license. After six months, a young driver may not carry more than three passengers under the age of 18.
- Stage 3—Unrestricted License This is available to teens once they are 18 or older.
Automobile Insurance in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania is one of twelve no-fault auto insurance states. This means that a driver’s insurance will pay for their post-accident medical bills, regardless of who is at fault. Drivers may purchase what’s known as full tort coverage, which provides them with the legal right to sue the at-fault party in an accident. Without purchasing this coverage, however, they do not have the legal right to sue an at-fault driver.
At minimum, drivers in Pennsylvania are legally required to carry liability insurance that will cover:
- $15,000 for injury/death to one person per accident
- $30,000 for injury/death to more than one person per accident
- $5,000 for damage to property per accident.
Most drivers will choose to purchase additional coverage, including collision coverage, comprehensive coverage, full tort coverage, and uninsured motorist coverage.
Only 6.5 percent of Pennsylvania motorists are uninsured, and only six states have lower rates of uninsured drivers than the Keystone State. This may be partially due to Pennsylvania’s strict laws, which specify that motorists caught without insurance can face:
- A minimum fine of $300
- A 3-month suspension of the driver’s license and registration, plus the cost to reinstate them.
- Impoundment of the vehicle.
The State of Driving in Pennsylvania
Getting behind the wheel in Pennsylvania may offer very different driving experiences and scenery depending on where in the state you live, but all drivers should recognize the specific challenges and hazards they are likely to face. Understanding the state of driving in Pennsylvania can help you make the best and safest decisions on the road.