Driving-related laws are always complicated. Driving in places where the laws are different from the one that issued a given license is a particular challenge. Speed limits differ from one another, seat belt laws change, and – in the US, at least – the punishments for exceeding the legal blood alcohol content vary from state to state, as well.
The differences become even greater when moving from country to country, of course. Therefore, this article will focus on only US states. And while no single metric offers a complete picture of how a given state approaches driving violations overall, it is worthwhile to look at individual violation types and assess how they are approached by different states.
This article will examine the most and least strict states in the US regarding the imposition of speed limit penalties and drunk driving penalties. We will also look at seat belt laws in the US and how they are categorized by different states.
Which states have the strictest driving laws overall?
According to one study, Alaska and Oregon have the most strict laws altogether, based upon penalties imposed for speeding, seat belt, and drunk driving infringements altogether. Texas and New Hampshire are considered the least strict overall.
Below, we will break down each of these three categories and examine what the penalties are for each of them in the most and least strict states by infringement type.
Speed Limit Penalties
In this section, we will look at the states that have the most and least strict penalties for exceeding the speed limit. Speed limits do vary from state to state, of course, so direct comparisons require some qualification. Nonetheless, comparing states’ individual approaches to violations still offers some insight into how state laws vary from one another.
There are, of course, many particularities involved in the imposition of fines. Driving in alleyways, in school zones, on different types of highways, and many other particular roads all incur different penalties. However, overall Oregon comes out on top for the strictest fines in general.
While most states impose fines ranging from approximately $100-500 with possible jail time, Oregon’s penalties far exceed these numbers. The state has a speed limit of 70 miles per hour, which is about the average among all US states. However, exceeding the speed limit in Oregon can incur fines of up to $2000. If a person is caught driving over 100 miles per hour, it is considered reckless driving and it could also incur a 90-day license suspension.
One notable feature about Oregon’s driving rules is that, unlike many other states, it does not impose a points system for violations.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Texas has the least strict penalties for speeding in the US. The state’s speed limit is by far the highest in the country at up to 85 miles per hour on some roads. With so much of the state unpopulated, it is able to enact these laws with relative ease.
Penalties for exceeding the speeding limit run within the $200 limit. This is among the lowest rates anywhere in the US. Texas also does not impose a points system on speeding violations. Instead, the decision to suspend a given driver’s license is a subjective one, made at the discretion of individual policemen based upon “too many violations within a short period of time.”
Another metric that varies considerably from state to state is penalty systems for drunk driving. While the US is already a standout among other countries in this respect – with most of the world’s countries having far stricter policies about blood alcohol content while driving – there are also major differences in the allowed amount among states and penalties for violations.
All US states have a legal blood alcohol content limit of 0.08. In other words, if a person is found to have a BAC of .08, that person will have four to five drinks in his or her system, depending on the person’s body weight. However, the difference lies in how states approach violations.
Arizona has perhaps the country’s most strict laws on drunk driving. For a person exceeding this limit in Arizona, a first violation will result in jail time of 24 hours to ten days, a $250 base fine, and a license suspension between 90 days to a year. The amounts become proportionally higher depending on the number of offenses.
These amounts all apply to drivers over the age of 21, of course. For minors that are given a DUI, they receive a fine of $1600, in addition to jail time and a license suspension of 90-360 days. This is not particular to the state; all states have “no tolerance” rules for underage drivers who are caught with a BAC of even .02.
The state that has the most lenient laws towards drunk driving is South Dakota. Although it imposes fines, as well as a possible license suspension of 30 days for driving with a BAC of .08 or more, South Dakota does not impose jail time for either a first or second offense unless there are other infractions committed.
Seat Belt Enforcement
The enforcement of wearing seat belts varies depending on a number of factors. First of all, it is categorized differently for different passengers depending on seating. Overall, seat belt laws are generally broken into two categories nationwide: “primary” and “secondary.” States with primary seat belt laws are those that allow police officers to stop drivers not wearing seat belts independent of any other violation. States with secondary seat belt laws are those that do not allow police officers to stop drivers for seat belt violations alone.
Nationwide, there are 35 states that have primary seat belt laws, and 15 that have secondary ones. Interestingly, the District of Columbia – which has its own laws independent of any of the states – has arguably the strictest policy nationwide when it comes to seat belt enforcement.
Laws also vary depending on which seat a violating passenger is sitting in. All states except New Hampshire require adult front-seat passengers to wear seat belts. There are 33 states that require adults in rear seats to wear seat belts. For children, the laws vary even further.
How Effective Are These Policies?
Fully analyzing the effectiveness of these policies would be a complicated endeavor. When looking at the states with the highest and lowest fatality rates in driving accidents, the statistics point at different states altogether: The state with the highest number of fatal car accidents overall is Mississippi. The state with the lowest auto-related fatalities is Massachusetts. There are far too many factors involved to determine the reasons for these rankings in a short article.
In addition, making comparisons between recent years would be difficult, as well. For example, Arizona’s rate of traffic-related deaths increased for the third year in a row in 2022. However, alcohol-related traffic deaths actually decreased from 253 to 221 in the previous year. Is this related to Arizona’s alcohol laws? Considering that bars and restaurants were closed during the pandemic, many people were probably only drinking alcohol at home during this period. So it is difficult to say what the reasons for the decline are.
Another question would be the extent to which these laws are adjusted based upon the number of accidents each state has. Further complicating the situation is interstate highways, which have their own speed limits and run through multiple states.
What can be concluded is that injuries and fatalities would almost certainly be a lot lower if the US had stricter laws on BAC while driving, and perhaps also on the legal driving age. In many countries, the minimum legal age to have a driver’s license is 18. In the US, it is 16. Taking into consideration the ages of drinking-related driving fatalities would also be a major topic of its own.
Traffic laws and their consequences are always difficult to correlate. The US has a particularly complicated situation because of the fact that individual states create their own laws. Whether this results in a more or less safe situation than would be the case if there were nationwide rules is difficult to say, but each state will continue to work out its own laws according to its own priorities.