Travel & Leisure
updated 12/5/2011 10:49:11 AM ET 2011-12-05T15:49:11

Wendy Peck once spent a year driving 30,000 miles around North America. “I’m a confident driver,” says the Canadian meeting planner—“always have been.”

Until, that is, she spent a winter driving in and out of Phoenix. “It’s not just that people speed,” she says, “but they roar up behind you in the lane, and have to slam on their brakes when you don’t magically disappear from their path.” The irony, she added, is that the city itself is easy to navigate. “It’s 100 percent the drivers that scare me to death.”

That kind of suspense helped Phoenix plow into the top 10 of America’s Worst Drivers—a new category in the annual America’s Favorite Cities survey. Travel + Leisure readers evaluate 35 cities, voting in categories such as shopping, cuisine, and driving ability. The nation’s best drivers, according to readers, are tooling around Kansas City, KS; Portland, ME; and Savannah, GA.

And the worst drivers? They hail from cities known for traffic and, shall we say, lively locals. Simon Tam, a musician who tours with the band the Slants, recalls driving though Little Italy in New York City. “A large delivery truck once drove onto the sidewalk just to pass me,” he says. “In the process, he took off my side mirror—and then flipped me off.”

Granted, some bad reputations stem from unfair perceptions. According to the Allstate Insurance Best Drivers Report, Phoenix residents average about 10 years between accidents—while local drivers in Washington, D.C., average only five years between run-ins. And some cities that ranked as the worst for driving ability are filled with tourists who don’t know their way around. That may explain Orlando’s poor standing (you try finding your exit with a carful of kids riding a sugar high).

Density and growing traffic can also take their toll on otherwise easygoing locals. Austin, TX, for instance, made the Worst list, despite also ranking well in the survey for friendliness. “You just can’t predict what they’re going to do,” says Jason Jepson, an entrepreneur who moved to the Texas capital last year. “They’ll gun it on a yellow, or swerve left to make a right-hand turn—and if you don’t have a huge truck, you’ll just get run over.”

Yet there’s a twist: “Drivers here are super nice to people on bikes,” says Jepson. “I feel much safer on my ten-speed than I do in my car.”

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