The press release seemed plausible.

Maine drivers are among the best in the nation according to a website that compares auto insurance rates.

Maine drivers ranked seventh and were rated better than most other states in the number of fatalities per million miles driven. Drivers also received far fewer tickets than other states, and had the seventh fewest tickets issued for failure to obey traffic signals.

Southern states were among the worst, and Louisiana was dead last in the ranking.

The rating for Maine seemed to make sense to Vikki Jeffries, who lives in Winthrop and previously lived in Texas, Washington state, Colorado and North Carolina.

“Maine drivers are some of the better ones. I think they’re courteous,” said Jeffries, whose husband’s service in the military explains the multiple moves.

Some of the ranking, however, didn’t square with her personal experience. Take for instance, Massachusetts drivers ranking four spots better than Maine.

“Boston drivers are awful … fighting for position,” she said. “And more timid drivers are at the mercy of anybody else who might let them in” at roundabouts, interchanges or lanes merging.

David Littlefield, head of legislative affairs for the Maine Professional Drivers Association, drove a truck for 12 years.

“As far as New England, Massachusetts has always been a challenge. I just think the people get into more traffic down there and have less patience and are more likely to take chances than they are up here.”

And he hasn’t found Southern drivers to be a reckless bunch.

“We’ve gone I-95 from one end to the other several times and once you get below Richmond, Virginia, I thought it was a really relaxing ride,” he said.

It turns out the carinsurancecomparison.com rating system wasn’t a scientific analysis, but ranked states in a variety of categories based on available data from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, American Motorists Association and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

While Florida might have earned 50 points for having the most traffic tickets issued, Georgia got 49 points for having the second most regardless of the difference between the two states. Efforts to reach the report’s author Monday were unsuccessful.

The report ranked Maine sixth in the least number of tickets issued, which appears to be more related to population and the number of drivers — and maybe number of police officers — than actual driving behavior.

Montana had the fewest traffic tickets issued of any state, but had the highest fatality rate per million miles driven.

Maine’s crash rate of 197 crashes per million miles driven in 2009 was actually above the national average of 186. The state’s fatality rate of 1.09 was slightly lower than the national average of 1.16 per million miles driven.

Russ Rader, vice president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said contrary to many people’s impression, the more rural a state, the higher the fatality rate.

“We may think of city drivers as being more reckless, but the lower speeds of cities make it less likely that when a crash happens, it will be serious,” Rader said. Rural states like Maine, with many miles of two-lane high-speed roads, are more likely to have serious crashes. And for all the aggressive city drivers, there are lots more people in Boston who aren’t driving at all.

Massachusetts, despite its reputation in some quarters, has the lowest fatality rate in the country.

Fatalities don’t tell the whole story of driving behavior, however.

“The big thing that insurance companies pay for is the repair of vehicles,” Rader said. “You tend to have more frequent crashes in urban areas, so that’s why people in cities tend to pay more for insurance.”

According to one survey, Maine has the lowest insurance rates in the country. A survey by insurancerate.com in 2010 found that average annual rates in Maine were about $903. Louisiana — the state with the worst drivers according to the carinsurancecomparison.com survey — had the highest rates, at $2,511 per year.

Massachusetts car owners paid $1,044 on average.

Maine definitely does have some things going for it in the safe driver category, said Lauren Stewart, head of the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety.

“Maine has very good laws for drunk driving, drugged driving and distracted driving,” she said.

Maine has a primary seatbelt law and seatbelt usage has jumped from 59 percent in 2004 to about 82 percent now, she said. Seatbelts save lives.

Maine also gives new drivers progressively more freedom as they accumulate experience.

Maine has one of the oldest populations in the country, meaning comparatively few young drivers. Young drivers statistically have more crashes because of their inexperience, Stewart said.

Maine weather is a factor as well. Winter snowstorms contribute to some crashes, but cold weather also means a shorter motorcycle season. Motorcyclists are more vulnerable to serious injuries in a crash, said Duane Brunell of Maine Department of Transportation safety office.

Brunell and Stewart said they don’t put much stock in the rankings and prefer more precise measures of performance and safety.


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