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Summer 2008 | Vol. 10 | No. 4
Improving Safety Means Focusing on Rural Roadways
By: Keith Knapp, Research Manager
Center for Excellence in Rural Safety, University of Minnesota
Improving overall roadway safety is a primary focus of transportation safety agencies throughout the United States. However, more than 70 percent of the lane-miles in this country are in rural areas, and the reduction in rural roadway crashes represents a large and complex challenge. Overall in 2006, approximately 56 percent of all roadway fatalities in the United States were rural, but only 23 percent of the population resided in rural areas. In addition, the national fatality crash rate in rural areas was more than twice that of urban areas.
The factors that contribute to fatal rural crashes are multidimensional, and their reduction requires a safety improvement program with similar characteristics. Safety improvement measures that alter driving behavior, roadway infrastructure and emergency response activities are necessary. In 2006, for example, rural area roadways accounted for:
- 57 percent of the all drivers in speed-related fatal crashes; and
- 58 percent of all the passenger vehicle fatalities related to alcohol impairment.
- Further, 57 percent of rural roadway fatalities were unrestrained; and
- Overall seat belt use was approximately 78 percent (versus 84 percent in urban areas).
Related to these statistics are the types of crashes that occur in rural areas. In 2006 it was estimated that 58 percent of all the roadway fatalities nationally were roadway departures and that there were at least twice as many rural run-offthe- road fatalities than urban. In 2006, 21 percent of the roadway fatalities in the United States were also intersection-related; an estimated 40 percent of these crashes occurred on rural roadways. Also, in 2006, about 72 percent of drivers that died on their trip to the hospital were in rural areas.
Of course the characteristics of the rural roadway incidents described above are not mutually exclusive. For example, drivers who speed and/or drink may be more likely to run-off-the-road at a curve and be killed (especially if they are not wearing their seat belt). Removing or reducing the occurrence or outcome of any one of these four factors, however, may produce a more favorable outcome.
Clearly, a comprehensive program of educational, enforcement and engineering measures are needed to improve the safety of the rural roadway system through-out the United States.
Each state Department of Transportation (DOT) now has a Strategic Highway Safety Plan (SHSP), which could focus on rural roadways. In addition, the U.S. DOT recently introduced its Rural Safety Initiative. This initiative involves the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, and other federal agencies. These partner agencies will focus on a cooperative and comprehensive approach to rural roadway safety improvements. Further, the Rural Safety Innovation Program recently started by FHWA and NHTSA has introduced a rural youth traffic safety message competition.
These approaches may begin to make a difference in reducing the number of rural fatalities and injuries.