Beautiful And Deadly: A Disproportionate Number Of People Die On America’s Rural Roads

Rural roads may be beautiful, but nearly half of all fatal crashes occur on them, even though only 19% of the U.S. population lives in rural areas. In 2020, the risk of dying in a crash was 62% higher on a rural road compared to an urban road for the same trip length. Major contributing factors include simpler roadway infrastructure, poor emergency medical services and risky behaviors, like not wearing a seat belt, impaired driving, speeding and distracted driving.

Those are the highlights of a new study, “America’s Rural Roads: Beautiful and Deadly,” released earlier this month by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), a nonprofit organization representing state highway safety offices.

“Roads are the backbone of rural America, connecting far-flung communities and families,” Jonathan Adkins, the GHSA’s executive director, said in a statement. “While cities and urban areas have alternatives to driving, that’s not the case for people in rural areas. Unfortunately, the dangerous and deadly driving behaviors that have increased during the pandemic have taken an over-sized toll on rural residents.”

The report comes as traffic fatalities are soaring nationwide. Rural roads have been especially lethal in recent years, the report noted. Between 2016 and 2020, 85,002 people died in crashes on rural roads. Rural road deaths fell for several years before the pandemic, but increased in 2020, similar to what happened in overall fatalities across the country. Deaths on all types of rural roads increased further in 2021, according to preliminary federal data.

On average, a driver’s risk of being involved in a deadly crash is greater on rural roads than when driving the same distance on urban roads, but there has been an “alarming increase” in the number and rate of fatal crashes on urban roads over the past ten years, according to recent research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a nonprofit research and education association.

The report includes an analysis to determine trends and risk factors, and offers dozens of recommendations on what states and their partners can do to prevent crashes, save lives, and make rural roads safer.

Highlights from the report:

  • men are involved much more than women (more than two to one), mirroring their over involvement in crashes of all types. During the five-year period, 59,793 men died in rural road crashes compared to 25,151 women;
  • young teen drivers are at particular risk on rural roads, and young drivers continue to crash and die well into their twenties – and at exceptionally high rates, the highest of any age group;
  • a lack of seat belt use is a hallmark of fatalities on rural roads. More than half (58%) of U.S. motor vehicle occupants killed in rural road crashes during the five-year period were unrestrained;
  • speeding is a safety problem on all types of roads, but especially in rural areas, where it was a factor in 27% of deaths. Nearly half (46%) of fatalities in crashes that involved speeding occurred on rural roads. Additionally, states with high maximum speed limits tend to have higher per capita rates of fatalities on rural roads than states with lower maximum speed limits;
  • alcohol and drug use are also key factors, as 43% of alcohol-related motor vehicle fatalities occurred on a rural road; and
  • of all fatalities that involved distraction, 46% occurred on rural roads.

“Making rural roads safer is essential for achieving the national goal of zero fatalities,” Adkins added.

To read the full report, click here.

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