Rural routes more dangerous than those in urban areas

By Bill Holloway

Following a six-year decline, roadway deaths were up substantially in 2012 with preliminary data indicating a 5% increase over 2011. Texas had the largest increase with a total of 3,339 fatalities in 2012, up more than 400 over 2011. However, annual traffic deaths were up in 38 states.

Rural areas, although home to less than 20 percent of the nation’s population, account for 55 percent of traffic fatalities, and largely rural states have the deadliest roadways (map). A recent article by Daniel Vock on Stateline identifies the key reasons for the disparity in traffic fatalities between urban and rural areas: a greater prevalence of high speed two-lane undivided highways; fewer safety features, like guard rails; fewer police officers monitoring larger areas; and higher rates of drunk driving. Longer distances to emergency medical facilities and lower rates of seatbelt usage are other contributing factors that make potentially survivable crashes more deadly in many rural areas.

Surprisingly, given the number of deer along the roadsides in many rural areas, collisions with deer and other wildlife do not rank as a major factor in traffic fatalities. Although the vast majority of the estimated 300,000 annual crashes with wildlife occur on low volume two-lane roads, these collisions are rarely fatal—representing only 0.5 percent of highway fatalities.

Despite the greater risk, according to a 2010 survey conducted by the Center for Excellence in Rural Safety at the University of Minnesota, drivers feel safer and more relaxed on these rural routes than on urban freeways. In addition, drivers, particularly rural residents, are more likely to feel comfortable eating, using a cell phone, or drinking and driving in rural areas.

Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.