The rate of fatalities from vehicle crashes is disproportionately high on rural roads compared to urban roads when assessed against population and total vehicle miles driven. Data from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) report America’s Roads: Beautiful and Deadly (www.ghsa.org/resources/GHSA/Rural-Road-Safety22) shows that in 2020 the risk of dying in a vehicle crash was 62% higher on rural roads than on urban roads for the same trip length. According to the 2022 National Roadway Safety Strategy of the U.S. Department of Transportation, the rural fatality rate is almost twice the urban rate. Nationwide, 19% of U.S. population lived in rural areas, 30% of vehicle miles are traveled, and 45% of fatalities occurred on rural roads. The two most common fatal crash types seen on rural roads are roadway departures and head-on collisions.
In the Colorado State Patrol district 3B, which coincides with the region covered by NCHD, during 2022 there were 25 fatal crashes and 11 involving serious bodily injury: over 60% of those occurred on secondary highways and county roads.
Risky driver behaviors are significant to the high rate of crashes on rural roads. The three most frequent and persistent human behavioral factors in crash fatalities are speeding, not wearing seatbelts, and driving while impaired. Distracted driving is also a serious safety issue – distractions can involve trying to do other things while driving, including texting, or simply not paying attention to the road while thinking about other things.
Speed is a factor in every crash, regardless of the determined cause. Consequences of speeding – whether exceeding posted speed limits or driving too fast for conditions – include greater potential for loss of control during a corrective maneuver, reduced effectiveness of the vehicle’s protection equipment, and decreased driver peripheral awareness. Speed determines whether a crash results in property damage, or injury or death: as speed increases, so does the force applied on impact. The highest impact speeds in fatal crashes, particularly speeds over 100 miles per hour, occur on rural roads more often than urban. With long distances between home, work, and services, speeding may feel like a self-rewarding behavior when the trip feels shorter. The increased risk and greater crash severity may only become apparent in the event of a crash.
Let’s talk seatbelts. Nationwide, the largest contributing factor to motor vehicle fatalities is failure to use seat belts and people in rural areas are less likely to use seat belts. Buckling up is the single behavior with the most potential to save lives. 27 people were killed in the 25 crashes in CSP district 3B referenced above: 18 of those were unrestrained occupants. All vehicle occupants should be correctly restrained. Younger occupants and drivers take their cues from the adults in their lives and when proper seatbelt use is modeled, the importance of safety is conveyed. Data from the GHSA report shows that seatbelts have saved more lives than several other vehicle safety technologies put together, including airbags, improvements to steering and braking capabilities, as well as vehicle safety construction. If you have questions about proper use of child passenger safety restraints, please visit www.nchd.org/carseatsafety.
Drunk driving is not unique to rural roads, and alcohol is not the only impairment substance. Even legal prescription drugs can pose impairment concerns for drivers. If the prescription says something to the effect of “do not operate heavy equipment,” that also refers to passenger vehicles. While most people probably already understand the dangers of impaired driving, it continues to be a cause of rural road fatalities. 43% of alcohol-related road deaths were on rural roads. Distracted drivers can be as dangerous as impaired ones. A designated sober driver should not partake in any substance – sober doesn’t mean having only one drink or switching to coffee an hour before driving.
Rural roads present different challenges to safety than urban roads due to factors such as the infrastructure and countryside, different equipment that may be using the road at the same time as passenger vehicles, and lack of lighting and shoulders. Familiarity and lack of traffic may lead to excessive speed and reduced attention, resulting in a crash when driving conditions might otherwise be perfect. Lack of alternative transportation may require being on the road when the driver, the vehicle, or external conditions are not perfect. You can improve your chances of making it out and back safely by buckling up and slowing down. And never, ever drive while impaired by alcohol or other substances.