In honor of our 25th 10Best issue, I've decided to rank the 50 states and the District of Columbia according to their attractiveness to drivers. Possessing a certain nerdy talent for spreadsheets and searching the Internet for obscure information, Ive based these rankings on nine statistical criteria.
We all like open roads, so I scoured the databases of the Federal Highway Administration to generate a table of vehicle-miles traveled per mile of road lane in every state. The results vary widely: In North Dakota, there are only 41,000 vehicle-miles traveled on each lane-mile per year (meaning that, on average, a vehicle went by every 13 minutes in each lane). At the other extreme is D.C., in which the traffic density is about 22 times as great. North Dakota scored the full 10 points in this category. D.C. got a mere 0.44 point.
Low-traffic roads are fine, but we also like roads without children playing in them, so I included a ranking of population per mile of roadway. Here again, the winner was North Dakota, with a mere seven residents per mile of road versus D.C. with about 400.
Most of us also prefer roads with limited truck traffic, and the FHWA conveniently tracks this info as well. A mere three percent of Hawaii's traffic consists of heavy trucks -- not much interstate trucking opportunity there. Meanwhile, 24 percent of Wyomings traffic consists of big rigs. Ten points for Hawaii, 1.3 points for Wyoming.
Of course, we all want smooth roads. That condition is measured on an "International Roughness Index." Don't ask me how that's done, but the result is expressed in inches of roughness per mile of pavement. By stitching together seven spreadsheets, I compiled the percentage of roads in each state with an IRI of better than 94 per mile. The winner was Georgia, with 86 percent. D.C. again finished last, with none of its roads passing this smoothness bogey.
Spending does not always yield quality, but I decided to rank each state by the money spent annually on roads, divided by the number of licensed drivers in the state. The winner was Alaska, which spent $1078 for each driver. Those bridges to nowhere pay off big in this category. At the other extreme is Georgia, which manages to have the country's smoothest roads, while spending a fourth as much per driver as Alaska does, suggesting that perhaps chain gangs do have their benefits. Just kidding.
Driving is safer than it's ever been, but there are still substantial differences among the states. In Mississippi, the highway death rate was 2.28 fatalities per 100 million vehicle-miles driven. In Massachusetts, it was barely a third of that, at 0.87. I suspect this says more about the higher willingness of Massachusetts drivers to buckle up than it does about their inherent driving talent, which was not obvious when I went to college in that state three decades ago.
Speed limits vary considerably across the country, and for these rankings, I averaged the highest interstate-highway speed limits and the highest limits on other highways. Nevada, Oklahoma, and South Dakota shared honors in this category as all of them have a 75-mph interstate limit combined with a 70-mph limit on other highways. D.C. finishes last yet again with a 55-mph maximum.
Speed limits are one thing, enforcement is something else, and I drew a blank searching for the number of traffic citations written by each state. My pals at the National Motorists Association didn't have those data, either, although they did point me to a study by the Governors Highway Safety Association that compiled citations issued by each states highway patrol. Even those statistics were incomplete, which leads me to believe that government suppresses an accurate count of traffic citations because if the total were known, it would lead to widespread insurrection. But by substituting an average number from the reporting states for the nonreporting states, I was able to create an admittedly shaky ranking in this category.
The nation's capital, which seems to adopt every driver-unfriendly habit, is a hotbed of photo radar, issuing some 400,000 such tickets annually. As a result, for every million vehicle-miles traveled, the District issues 62 tickets. New Jersey, of all places, issues less than one ticket per million miles traveled, making it the least-ticket-happy state, at least in 2003, which is the latest year in which I could find even these sketchy data. Also, I gave each state penalty points (minus two each) if photo radar or red-light cameras were in use.
Finally, the most important category was the one for which data were the most scarce. Once we have satisfied ourselves that the roads are empty, smooth, safe, and laxly enforced, we want pavement that twists and winds. Roads are straight unless there are geographical obstacles that make that impossible. Therefore, undulating topography would be a great divining rod for interesting roads.
Sadly, I couldn't find any statistic describing topography. The best I could do -- and this is lame -- was to take the difference between each state's highest and lowest points. This dimension does not discriminate between states with a single high peak and others with uniformly rolling but low countryside. Still, I gave it double points because of geography's influence on roads. The winner is Alaska, rising 20,320 feet from sea level to the peak of Mt. McKinley, while Florida has a mere 345 feet of elevation change, which is no surprise to drivers in the Sunshine State.
After tabulating the results, Alaska leads the states for driving, narrowly edging Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Utah. At the bottom, the District of Columbia, with its heavy governmental oversight, was the standout loser. Louisiana, Mississippi, Maryland, and South Carolina barely threatened D.C.'s lock on last.
The entire list, with the data from which it was constructed, can be downloaded as a zipped archive. Feel free to download the spreadsheet and create your own rankings. And if you have a good measure of the twistiness of state roads, let me know.