Highway Deaths in Rural America: NMA E-Newsletter #714

The Governor’s Highway Safety Association (GHSA) released a study called America’s Rural Roads: Beautiful and Deadly earlier this month. Researchers found that between 2016 and 2020, 40 percent of US traffic deaths occurred on rural roads. A total of 85,002 people died in rural areas during the five-year study period—nearly half of all traffic deaths across the country. This is significant because only 19 percent of the country’s population lives in rural America.

The question is, why?

The issues on rural roads are the same as in urban cores—distractions, impaired driving, speeding, and not wearing seat belts. The study cites these different reasons for drivers to exhibit risky behavior:

  • Fewer public transit options
  • Less law enforcement
  • Limited emergency response due to distance
  • Longer trips for necessities
  • Open roads

Other study statistics compared the differences between rural and urban deaths:

  • 61.4 percent of rural traffic fatalities involved pick-up trucks.
  • More drivers and passengers in vehicles died in rural areas (68,709 to 56,990), whereas urban areas led to deaths involving motorcyclists (15,309 to 9,310), pedestrians (25,551 to 5,766), and bicyclists (3,375 to 952).
  • Rural drivers 20 to 24 years old accounted for 10.4 percent of deaths compared to 5 percent in cities.
  • Rural motorists driving alone and going off the roadway were higher than urban drivers (34,743 to 25,536).
  • Head-on crashes were higher in rural areas (12,339 to 7,275).

Road conditions don’t factor much in most deadly rural fatalities.

As a result of the research, the GHSA is pushing states to use a ‘safe systems’ approach for rural America. The method is the newest buzzword—perhaps it’s easier to swallow than the term Vision Zero. These programs blame the driver and the street design for traffic accidents. Road safety, though, is the fundamental responsibility of those who design the roads and every user of the streets. Are expensive programs that don’t improve traffic safety worth the widespread bureaucratic support they are given when the touted results are questionable at best?

Pennsylvania DOT spokeswoman Jennifer Kuntch responded to the study with the following statement:

“Rural road safety is addressed through both engineering and education. These countermeasures include rumble strips, high-friction surface treatments, high-tension cable median barriers, shoulder widening, and the installation of special curve warning signs and pavement markings.”

But she said nothing about real driver education, which is a primary component of traffic safety.

Driver education is sorely lacking in this country. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, only 23 states currently require driver education for drivers under 18. In 35 states, a teen can obtain an unrestricted license before turning 18 whether or not they have taken a driver’s education course.

Driving is a responsibility no matter where you drive, and motorists should always continue learning more about this life skill no matter how long they have been on the road. The National Motorists Association is a major proponent of continuous driver education, as illustrated by the current Driver Courtesy Month campaign and the production of these video tips for drivers. More programs, with your ongoing support, are in the works.

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