The Safest State for Teen Drivers? Can You Believe It's Massachusetts?

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | May 09, 2016

Would you believe there’s something nice to say about Boston drivers? After all, Ray reminds us that people from Cambridge, our fair city, and its nearby metropolis “believe using turn signals is a sign of weakness.”

Genuine doggie no-no perpetrated by an actual Boston driver--in the obligatory Prius, too. (Marcus Ojeda/Flickr)The whole state is widely believed to be a land of horrible drivers. Have you heard about the “Mass Pullout”? It goes like this:

When pulling into traffic on a busy, undivided, two-way, four-to-eight lane street from a parking lot or stop sign, it is simply not acceptable to wait for all lanes of traffic to empty in order to make a smooth entry onto the roadway.  This could slow one down by as much as 30 to 40 seconds. Life-threatening behavior is clearly justified to avoid the delay. Take it one lane at a time.  When the lane directly in front of you is free, pull into it, perpendicular to traffic, and stop.  Repeat until you have blocked all lanes in both directions.  Then, slowly turn into the direction of choice, re-crossing as many lanes as possible. Straddle any two lanes of choice and proceed at 20 percent of the posted speed limit until you are passed angrily by one of the people you cut off. Then tailgate them no matter what speed they go, since the incident was obviously their fault.

And yet, and yet…Can you believe this? Massachusetts has just been deemed the safest state for teen drivers in a CarInsurance.com survey. Crazy, but true. The analysis looked at five things—including federal roadway fatality rates and distracted driving statistics.

The standard Boston driver, according to popular mythology. (Boston Public Library/Flickr)This is a big deal, because motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for American teenagers. In the survey, Massachusetts was revealed as the safest state, followed by (in descending order of goodness) Maryland, Alaska, Virginia and California.

And the most dangerous state? Montana, a bastion of rugged individualism. It’s followed by (only marginally better) North Dakota, Louisiana, South Dakota and Mississippi.

Michelle Megna is a Massachusetts driver; she’s also managing editor of CarInsurance.com, and put the report together. “I know they say we’re the worst, that we cut people off and don’t use our blinkers,” she said. “But if you’re looking at it through the lens I did—safety and the environment for teen drivers—our reputation is definitely unfair. In terms of metrics, Massachusetts does very well.”

A critical thing here is the graduated driving license (GDL) laws. I got my license at 16 and was driving unrestricted that very day, but now nearly every state has waiting periods that take you from the learner’s permit to the full-privilege stage. (All except Massachusetts’ live-free-or-die neighbor, New Hampshire.)

Draw your own conclusions, but many of the red states here are allergic to regulation. (CarInsurance.com)It’s a bit more complicated than that, since the laws vary a lot—there’s the age you can get a learner’s permit, the number of practice driving hours you need, restrictions on driving at night or the number of passengers (beyond parents and siblings) you can have, and the age you can actually get your license.

Montana, for instance (followed by Arkansas), has the highest rate of  high school driver drinking of all 50 states. Montana also has the third highest rate of teen texting and driving (after the Dakotas). And it lets kids get their learner’s permit at 14.5 years old (and a full-fledged license at 15). A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) finds that if the rules were pushed up one year—permit at 15.5, license at 16—the teen fatal crash rate would go down 26 percent.

A casual look at a map of states that could benefit quite a bit from tougher GDL laws displays a clear correlation between weak GDL laws and deep-seated antipathy to state and federal regulation. Megna agrees that the appearance is there.

“You could interpret it that way,” she said. “Massachusetts is heavily regulated, with lots of taxes, and environmental and safety rules. I can’t say my research totally supports that, but it appears in the results that states believing in small government didn’t fare as well as those that are maybe a bit more regulated.”

Click here if you want to see how tough your state’s GDL laws are. Massachusetts wants to see 40 hours of supervised driving before granting a license (Maine says 70); Mississippi, Arkansas, South Dakota and New Jersey require none.

According to CarInsurance.com, if Montana had stricter laws it could reduce the teen fatal crash rate by a whopping 56 percent. Other states that could reduce the kill rate 44 percent or more include Texas, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, both Dakotas, Missouri, Kansas, Idaho, Iowa and Nebraska. Eek! Why wouldn’t you tighten up the laws?

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