Alaska has won another dubious distinction – this time claiming the dishonor as home to the worst drivers in the country.
But anyone who has commuted on the Glenn Highway between Palmer and Anchorage on one of those snowy days when the road looks like a Tilt-A-Whirl run amuck already knew this.
Yes, it would be nice to blame the carnage on the snowy weather that makes for slick roads for half the year or the ever-lovin’ moose which sometimes do jump out into traffic.
But the thing is that neither moose nor the weather drive.
Ultimately, motor vehicles are controlled by the women or men behind the steering wheel, and those folks just aren’t very good at what they do, according to the website Car Insurance Comparison, which bills itself as “a free online resource for anyone interested in learning more about auto insurance,” and says its “goal is to be an objective, third-party resource for everything auto insurance related.”
In its analysis, Alaska not only won the competition for the worst drivers overall, it also topped the lists for speeders and drunk drivers.
Alaskans weren’t really so much careless about their driving as they were drunk and stupid.
“Alaska, ranked as the state with the worst drivers in 2020, had…a tie for its worst category – drunk driving and speeding,” according to the report.
Too fast for conditions
The report did not say how many of the speeding incidents were related to driving too fast for conditions, but that is a regular factor cited by Alaska State Troopers and city police departments in the wake of fatal accidents.
Posted speed limits in Alaska, as the state driver’s manual notes, apply only to dry road roads with good visibility. Many Alaska drivers fail to take this into account when conditions change.
“When driving conditions are less than ideal, a person operating a motor vehicle on the highway shall drive at a careful and prudent speed no greater than what is reasonable and proper having due regard for the following conditions,” the manual says.
“A. Traffic – When traffic is heavy, congested, or moving slowly.
“B. Surface – When the road surface is rough, icy, wet, or otherwise provides poor traction.
“C. Width – When the width of the roadway reduces your margin of safety.
“D. Weather – When weather conditions affect sight distance, and traction. (Rain, snow, fog, dust, or smoke).”
Winter weather in the state often affects all four factors and compounds the problem of drivers choosing different speeds at which to drive.
When traffic engineers set speed limits, they aim for what they call the “85th percentile,” the natural speed a “super majority” of drivers would consider “reasonable and safe” on a given stretch of roadway if there were no speed limits.
Safety studies have found that the safest highways are those on which drivers travel within 10 percent of the speed limit whether over or under.
In bad weather in Alaska, there are invariably drivers who think themselves immune to slick roads driving 20 percent or more over a reasonable speed for the conditions, and frightened drivers with a death grip on the steering wheel going 20 percent or more under a reasonable speed for the conditions.
It’s a recipe for disaster, which has more to do with the drivers than the weather conditions. But the result is predictable.
Speeding was cited as a factor in 52.5 percent of fatal traffic accidents in the state, according to the report, but there was another 49th state problem almost as big.
“Of (Alaska’s) 80 overall traffic deaths, 36 came when a driver drank and drove,” the report said. “This accounted for 45 percent of all traffic deaths.”
The state has been waging a war on drunk driving for years but it has had only limited success.
“Drunk driving and speeding drag (the state) down and are two of the factors in Alaska’s 2020 appearance in this list of states with the worst drivers,” the study said. “The categories of drunk driving and speeding account for 97.5 percent of Alaska’s total traffic deaths in 2018.”
On the plus side, the study said, “just 14 pedestrians were killed (in 2018), which amounted to 17.5 percent of all traffic deaths. (Alaska) actually ranked near the middle of the pack in this category.”
Though the wording of the report makes it sounds as if the authors were surprised by the lack of pedestrian deaths, there are reasons to believe this is a weather-related phenomenon. Walking conditions for about six months of the year range from bad to horrible in good parts of Alaska.
New Mexico is much better suited to year-round walking and bicycling and that helped it rank number one for the worst drivers in last year’s report. It slipped to number two behind Alaska this year despite maintaining its nation-leading rate of death for vulnerable road users.
“Ninety-four pedestrians and bicyclists were killed in traffic accidents in 2018, or 24 percent of all traffic deaths,” the report said. “The 4.5 pedestrians or bicyclists killed per every 100,000 residents of New Mexico” ranked the state worst in the nation for that category.
Pedestrians and bicyclists tend to die at greater rates in southern and sunbelt states in part because those states are more conducive to getting around on foot or by bike.
Preliminary data for 2019 put New Mexico number one again last year, according to a report from the Governors Highway Safety Association, with the top-five rounded out by Hawaii, Florida, South Carolina and Arizona in that order.
The same report notes that California, Georgia and Texas join Arizona and Florida to comprise a block of states that account for nearly half of all U.S. pedestrian deaths. Alaska was 27th on the pedestrian death list for 2019 with about a third the number of pedestrian deaths as New Mexico.
In the past, Alaska drivers have also scored better on their driving overall, according to the Car Insurance list. The state was the 27th worst in the group’s report last year before accelerating to number one, and it is far from established as the motherland of bad driving.
Montana, Texas, and South Carolina have worse track records. All have made the top-10 list for bad drivers every year since 2011. Montana has a sizable problem with unlicensed drivers, according to the report, while Texas and South Carolina, as noted above, are states where vulnerable road users too often become roadkill.
Safest driving periods
For those interested in avoiding accidents, the report did offer some help. Statistically, it reported, the safest time to drive is on a Wednesday from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m.
Drivers had about a 25 percent better chance of surviving a traffic accident on a Wednesday than on a Saturday, the deadliest day for drivers. And they were more than twice as likely to die in a 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. accident on any day than in an accident during the early morning hours.
The report said the deadliest month for driving is October, and the safest is February.
Experts cited in the report also pointed to phones as one of the big or biggest highway dangers today, and one of them – Bhumi Bhutani – warned of a growing new danger zone: parking lots.
“Paying attention while parking may sound suspiciously like driving 101, but you’d be surprised by how risky parking lots can be,” she was quoted as saying.
“Tens of thousands of collisions occur every year in parking lots and garage systems,” she said, noting a Gallup poll that revealed 66 percent of motorists are driving around in parking lots making phone calls and another 50 percent are texting or surfing social media.
“Add to this the 49 percent who are busy taking photos or watching videos, and you can start to figure out why parking lots are dangerous places to be driving,” she said.
“Auto insurance companies have reported that the number of claims spikes during the holiday shopping season. This is without taking into account the umpteen fender benders that go unreported.”
Since this is the holiday season, it would probably pay to be alert.