Home to Bourbon Street, plantation homes, swamps, and a unique cultural melting pot, Louisiana can seem like a country unto itself. And from the historic streets of New Orleans and Natchitoches to the rural roads of Central Louisiana and the wetlands along the coast, driving is the major means of transportation.
While it’s full of charm and excitement, there are reasons Louisiana isn’t always the best place to be behind the wheel. The state has some of the highest insurance rates in the nation, and it tops many lists of highway dangers from distracted driving to crash rates. Here are some things you should know before taking the wheel in the Bayou State.
As the infrastructure and public transportation options are often ranked some of the worst in the country, driving oneself is the best way to get around. Urban streets, and even some rural highways, are often heavily-traveled on the weekends when a seemingly never-ending good time of festivals, football games and events. Louisianans like to laissez le bon temps rouler (let the good times roll) not just at parties but also on the highways. As in other parts of the South, drivers here love their trucks and SUVs. EveryCarListed.com noted the most popular vehicle in Louisiana is the Ford F-150. Popular Mechanics also said in its “Unofficial State Cars of America” that eight full-size SUVs have market shares in the state that are more than twice the national average.
As in much of America, car culture is big in Louisiana and antique and hot rod enthusiasts put on regular shows and events. The NOLA Motorsports Park in New Orleans occasionally features professional auto racing, and offers an opportunity for ordinary drivers to race their own vehicle on a 2.75-mile track at any speed they’d like.
While the state is rich in oil, home to one of the world’s largest ports and supports a big industrial economy, automotive manufacturing never gained much traction here. In the 1910s and 1920s, the Louisiana Motor Company in Shreveport manufactured vehicles by assembling pieces purchased from suppliers such as Continental Motors. In 1918, the company purchased the manufacturing rights to the Bour Davis vehicle and started making five-seat, seven-seat and a two-seat roadster models. Only 1,000 of these vehicles were made before the company went bankrupt in 1921. More recently, startup automotive company Elio Motors announced it would start manufacturing vehicles in the state in 2018.
Recent data from the Federal Highway Administration said Louisiana drivers logged 14,805 miles per year, a tad bit more than the U.S. average of 14,425. Yet, that number continues to rise as places like Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Shreveport continue to grow their footprints and add distances to commutes. Between 2000 and 2016, the vehicle miles traveled in Louisiana increased by 21 percent and is projected to grow another 20 percent by 2030. That growth is also driving traffic and navigation company TomTom, ranks Baton Rouge and New Orleans among the 20 worst metro areas for traffic congestion.
Overall, the state’s commute time is roughly 25 minutes and on par with the national average. In more rural parts of Louisiana, extended commute distances can top 35 minutes.
Driving Across the Pelican State
According to the Federal Highway Administration, Louisiana has more than 130,000 miles of roadway, including 90,000 miles in rural areas and roughly 40,000 in urban areas. There are three major interstates in Louisiana. I-10 traverses the southern part of the state between Texas and Mississippi. I-49 travels from north to south between Lafayette and Shreveport, and in the northern portion of the state, I-20 is a major thoroughfare between Shreveport and Dallas, Texas, and Jackson, Mississippi. Further south, I-12 spans between Baton Rouge and the Gulf Coast while I-55 runs between New Orleans and Mississippi.
From the rolling hills of Northern Louisiana down to the lonely roads traversing marshes near the Gulf of Mexico, driving here is intertwined with nature. Down in the southern part of the state, roads can ride precariously close to bayous, swamps and bodies of water. Some highways, such as Louisiana Highway 1 to Grand Isle, can frequently be shut down when bad weather or high winds push water on the roadway. Alligators and wildlife along the roadside are not uncommon.
With so much driving to do and so much water in the southern part of the state, it’s hard to drive far without crossing a bridge. And some of the state’s bridges are the longest bridges in the world, including the 18-mile Atchafalaya Basin Bridge and the 22-mile Manchac Swamp Bridge. The 24-mile Lake Pontchartrain Causeway bridge traverses Lake Pontchartrain and is officially the world’s longest bridge over a body of water. It is so big that in the 8-mile center portion of the bridge, drivers cannot see land in any direction.
Despite its engineering marvels, the American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave the state a “D+” report card overall on its infrastructure, and TRIP, a national transportation research group, said Louisiana has the fourth worst roads in the country. TRIP reported a quarter of the state’s interstate highway miles are in poor or mediocre condition.
Drivers should especially take note in New Orleans. A television show recently said the city has the worst roads in the United States, and that many of its potholes are “chassis smashers.” Residents have long mocked the city streets’ conditions, some by even climbing inside gargantuan potholes to take photos. A local news station even features a pothole of the day. Hurricane season runs from June through November. When a large storm is forecast to strike the region, hundreds of thousands of vehicles can take to the roadways. Authorities may also declare “contraflow,” a regional plan that converts interstates and roadways into one-direction thoroughfares to move people out of harm’s way as quickly as possible. Drivers need to be aware as once they enter the contraflow, they will have no choice but to go where it takes them. In some cases they may not be able to exit for 50 miles.
While it can have challenging conditions, Louisiana can be a beautiful state for driving. What it lacks in mountains and scenery from the major interstates, it makes up for in its attractions and back roads. Louisiana is home to a number of scenic byways that take visitors past historic plantations along the Mississippi River and through wetlands and bayous. The 20-mile Tunica Trace Byway, which runs from St. Francisville and dead ends at the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, is often noted as one of the most beautiful drives in the state.
Filling Up the Tank
As a major producer of oil and refined gas, Louisiana is a relatively inexpensive place to fill the tank. AAA reported in early-May 2017 that the average price of a gallon of gas in the Bayou State was $2.17, 8 percent less than the national average of $2.34 per gallon.
Drivers here currently pay $.38 per gallon in taxes, including $.20 in state taxes. The state has not raised its gas tax since 1990 and is currently considering doing so to help pay for a $13 billion backlog of road repairs and upgrades. Officials say that every one cent increase can raise an estimated $30 million per year.
As a result of its low gas prices, Louisiana drivers probably aren’t as concerned about fuel efficiency or saving on gas as residents of states with higher gas prices. According to the Federal Highway Administration, the average fuel economy of vehicles in the state is also 14.89 miles per gallon, considerably less than the national average of 16.95.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration notes that accident and vehicle fatality rates can be impacted by things such as average gas prices, average monthly temperature, new passenger vehicles registrations and the unemployment rate. Data indicates that fatalities tend to decline during economic downturns and increase during recoveries.
Despite the fact that its 6 percent unemployment rate is significantly higher than the current national average of 4.5 percent, Louisiana has consistently had poor safety rankings. And a 2015 report by the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission noted that there are signs “that highway fatalities are slowly increasing partly due to an increased economy.”
Distracted, Dangerous and Drunk Driving
By almost every measure, Louisiana ranks among the most dangerous states in the country for drivers due to poor road conditions, distracted driving, and a lack of seatbelt use.
A study by financial website ValuePenguin called I-10 between New Orleans and Baton Rouge one of the most dangerous stretches of interstate in the country, and in New Orleans alone, there were 89 fatal wrecks on I-10 between 2011 and 2015. Another report identified Baton Rouge as the 2nd most dangerous city in the United States for driving. Its fatal crash rate of 16.6 per 100,000 residents is second only to Detroit. CarInsuranceComparison.com also ranked Louisiana as having the fifth worst drivers in the country based on fatality rates, failure to obey, drunk driving, speeding and careless driving.
Louisiana was recently ranked the worst state in the nation for distracted driving. The executive director of the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission has called distracted driving a “dangerous epidemic” that has resulted in nearly 27,000 injuries and 192 fatalities in the state between 2011 and 2015.
Authorities have been trying to reduce the accident rates by increasing enforcement of and fines for distracted driving activities. In 2016, legislators instituted higher fines for violations of the state’s ban on social media or texting while driving, raising it to $500 for the first offense and $1,000 for subsequent offenses. Louisiana’s drunk driving rate has remained relatively consistent for nearly two decades, constituting roughly a third of all traffic fatalities. In 2014, 34 percent of the state’s 737 total traffic fatalities were alcohol related.
One bright note is that the state has significantly increased enforcement against drunk driving. According to the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission, impaired driving arrests had fallen from 31,004 to 22,860 between 2010 and 2014. LHSC director Ken Trull attributed the decline to increased enforcement efforts like patrols and checkpoints. Law enforcement has given anecdotal evidence that the fear of arrest is enticing more people to use designated drivers or other means of transportation.
Both the Louisiana State Police and local departments around the state have been conducting regular and surprise sobriety checkpoints. There has been some legal wrangling about the constitutionality of these checkpoints, but drivers are generally advised to cooperate with officials.
Despite its poor performance in other lists, Louisiana was ranked as the 8th best state for teen drivers based on 16 key metrics including safety requirements, economic environment and driving laws.
The State of Louisiana licenses drivers through a two-stage Graduated Driver License Program. This starts with a Class E Learner’s Permit that can be obtained at age 15 and will allow the holder to drive while accompanied by an adult aged 21 or older. Applicants must first complete a state-approved drivers education course with 30 hours of classroom training and 8 hours of on-the-road training. Applicants must also pass a written and vision examination, and prove attendance of high school or completion or at least a GED equivalent.
At age 16, and after holding the permit for 180 days, the driver can apply for a Class E Intermediate License after passing the on-road driving test. The applicant must also have a signed statement from a parent or guardian confirming they have a minimum of 50 hours driving experience, including at least 15 hours at night.
Once the teen driver reaches their 17th birthday, he or she is eligible for a full license after passing the road skills test.
Louisiana state law requires all drivers to carry liability coverage on any vehicle they own. This includes:
- $15,000 for bodily injury to one person
- $30,000 for bodily injury to more than one person in a single accident
- $25,000 for coverage of damage to someone else’s vehicle or other property
While insurance rates have been relatively flat for a five-year period, they increased an average of 8 percent in 2016, fueled by a rising number of accidents and claim costs.
Louisiana also has a “No Pay, No Play” law (RS 32:866) that prohibits uninsured motorists from collecting the first $25,000 in property damages and the first $15,000 in personal injuries, regardless of fault.
Louisiana isn’t quite the safest state for driving. Poor road conditions, a high rate of distracted and drunk drivers, and a lack of seat belt use leave it with some of the highest auto fatality rates in the nation. However, many of the hazards here can be mitigated by paying close attention, driving defensively and being aware of one’s surroundings. Gas up the tank, get behind the wheel and laissez les bons temps rouler – safely!