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The best place to drive is . . . New York?!

Laws that would make our roads safer took a back seat in state legislatures in 2012, according to Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety (AHAS). The group recently issued its 10th annual report card, the 2013 Roadmap of State Highway Safety Laws, which ranks each state and the District of Columbia.

Only 14 states and the District got a "green" or good ranking on how many of 15 proposed basic highway safety laws on occupant protection and impaired driving had been adopted, the AHAS said. Thirty states got a "yellow" or caution, and six states were given a "red" or danger, indicating that they were falling "dangerously behind."

No state received a perfect rating, but New York was rated highest with 13.

South Dakota was lowest with three. Other states in the danger zone, according to the AHAS, were Arizona, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska and Wyoming. (See list below.)

Policy vs. performance

state highway lawsAn AHAS ranking deals only with laws passed by a state, not the enforcement of those laws or the actual safety record of the state. That has some state regulators unhappy.

"The rating is based on public policy and not on performance," Nebraska's state highway safety administrator told USA Today. "In terms of declining crash rates … we tend to compare very favorably."

Some states fared relatively well in the rankings in spite of apparent flaws. Texas, which upped its top speed limit to 85 mph on one stretch of toll road, received a yellow rating, as did New Hampshire, which doesn't even have a mandatory seat belt law.

Helmets off to Michigan

The AHAS is an advocacy group with strong roots in the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) movement and with parents of teenagers who were killed or injured in motor vehicle accidents, as well as consumer organizations and insurance agents and companies that tend to favor tighter laws because it saves them money on claims.

So its categories and agenda reflect concerns such as limiting the time new teenage drivers spend on the road, stopping their cell phone use and reducing the number of passengers in their vehicles.

And the AHAS is upset that only 10 states passed laws in 2012 that addressed these issues, compared with 22 the previous year.

One state, Michigan, actually went backward, according to the AHAS, revoking its requirement that all motorcycle riders must wear helmets.

Party politics

Western and wide-open states tend to have fewer laws than the AHAS wants in place. The group also takes exception with many of the so-called red states, which fail to enact what these states regard as overprotective "nanny" laws, or laws which would require more court time and police presence to enforce, such as trying to determine whether a driver in a moving vehicle was wearing a seat belt before he or she was stopped.

"The anti-government mood in many state capitals" was cited by one AHAS member as a reason new laws aren't being passed. The budget and health care wrangling between the Democratic and Republican parties also carries over to the states, according to the study's results. The AHAS suggests that state legislatures pass a total of 316 new laws, a number unlikely to cull favor with Tea Party advocates who believe we are already overregulated.

Reversing course

But the AHAS Roadmap does show that some messages seem to be getting through, particularly those regarding monitoring convicted drunken drivers. Seventeen states now have requirements in place for sophisticated ignition-locking devices that work off a breathalyzer-like gadget and prevent drunk drivers from starting their cars.

In anticipation of legislators' arguments that "we don't have the money," the AHAS points out that a federal highway act called Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) allows states to be "reaping financial rewards" by passing the kind of laws that the AHAS suggests, according to AHAS President Jacqueline Gillan.

And, while not claiming that there's a direct correlation with the laws suggested, Gillan points out a grisly statistic. After nearly 60 years of declining traffic deaths, fatalities rose by more than 7 percent in the first nine months of 2012, according to preliminary data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

"With every state legislature in session this year and with crash deaths seemingly on the rise, there is no excuse … not to make these basic highway safety laws a top priority," says Gillan.

Best states:

NEW YORK: 13 laws. Missing recommended cell phone restriction and age 18 unrestricted license for teen drivers.

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: 12 laws. Missing recommended nighttime and cell phone restrictions for teen drivers and ignition interlock law. (An ignition interlock law did pass on Jan. 9, 2013.)

ILLINOIS: 12 laws. Missing all-rider motorcycle helmet law, minimum age 16 learners' permit and recommended nighttime restriction for teen drivers.

KANSAS: 12 laws. Missing all-rider motorcycle helmet law, minimum age 16 learners' permit and age 18 unrestricted license for teen drivers.

NEW JERSEY: 12 laws. Missing supervised driving provision, recommended nighttime restriction for teen drivers and ignition interlock law.

NORTH CAROLINA: 12 laws. Missing minimum age 16 learners' permit, age 18 unrestricted license for teen drivers and ignition interlock law.

OREGON: 12 laws. Missing minimum age 16 learners' permit, recommended nighttime driving provision and age 18 unrestricted license for teen drivers.

DELAWARE: 11 laws. Missing all-rider motorcycle helmet law, age 18 unrestricted license for teen drivers, ignition interlock law and open container law.

GEORGIA: 11 laws. Missing minimum age 16 learners' permit, recommended nighttime and passenger restriction provisions for teen drivers and ignition interlock law.

RHODE ISLAND: 11 laws. Missing all-rider motorcycle helmet law, recommended nighttime driving provision, age 18 unrestricted license for teen drivers and ignition interlock law.

WASHINGTON: 11 laws. Missing minimum age 16 learners' permit, nighttime and passenger restrictions and age 18 unrestricted license for teen drivers.

Worst states:

SOUTH DAKOTA: 3 laws. Missing primary enforcement seat belt law, all-rider motorcycle helmet law, booster seat law, six of seven teen driving provisions, ignition interlock law, child endangerment law and all-driver text messaging restriction.

MISSISSIPPI: 5 laws. Missing recommended booster seat law, six of seven teen driving provisions, ignition interlock law, open container law and all-driver text messaging restriction.

ARIZONA: 6 laws. Missing primary enforcement seat belt law, all-rider motorcycle helmet law, six of seven teen driving provisions and all-driver text messaging restriction.

MONTANA: 6 laws. Missing primary enforcement seat belt law, all-rider motorcycle helmet law, recommended booster seat law, four of seven teen driving provisions, ignition interlock law and all-driver text messaging restriction.

NEBRASKA: 6 laws. Missing primary enforcement seat belt law, recommended booster seat law, six of seven teen driving provisions and all-driver text messaging restriction.

WYOMING: 6 laws. Missing primary enforcement seat belt law, all-rider motorcycle helmet law, five of seven teen driving provisions, ignition interlock law and open container law.

States dangerously close to red:

IOWA: 6 laws. Missing all-rider motorcycle helmet law, recommended booster seat law, five of seven teen driving provisions, ignition interlock law and all-driver text messaging restriction. Would be red, but has primary enforcement seatbelt law.

FLORIDA: 7 laws. Missing all-rider motorcycle helmet law, booster seat law, four of seven teen driving provisions, ignition interlock law and all-driver text messaging restriction.

MISSOURI: 7 laws. Missing primary enforcement seatbelt law, four of seven teen driving provisions, child endangerment law, open container law and all-driver text messaging restriction.

NEW HAMPSHIRE: 7 laws. Missing primary enforcement seatbelt law, all-rider motorcycle helmet law, recommended booster seat law, four of seven teen driving provisions and ignition interlock law.

NORTH DAKOTA: 7 laws. Missing primary enforcement seatbelt law, all-rider motorcycle helmet law, recommended booster seat law, four of seven teen driving provisions and ignition interlock law.

SOUTH CAROLINA: 7 laws. Missing all-rider motorcycle helmet law, recommended booster seat law, four of seven teen driving provisions, ignition interlock law and all-driver text messaging restriction.

TEXAS: 7 laws. Missing all-rider motorcycle helmet law, five of seven teen driving provisions, ignition interlock law and all-driver text messaging restriction.

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