GSHA Report Highlights Rural Road Safety Issues

A new report from the Governors Highway Safety Association, funded by State Farm, examines a broad range of rural road safety problems as nearly half of all fatal crashes occur on them, even though only 19 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural areas.

[Above image by GHSA]

That report – entitled America’s Rural Roads: Beautiful and Deadly – noted that, between 2016 and 2020, 85,002 people died in crashes on rural roads. It also notes that in 2020 the risk of dying in a crash was 62 percent higher on a rural road compared to an urban road for the same trip length.

Photo by WSDOT

While rural road deaths fell for several years before the COVID-19 pandemic, they increased in 2020 – mirroring a broader trend occurring across the country. Deaths on all types of rural roads – interstate, arterial and collector/local – increased further in 2021, according to preliminary National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data issued in May. That trend continued into the first quarter of 2022, according to NHTSA’s early estimates.

Several factors contribute to this high rate of crashes on rural roads, according to GHSA’s report, including lack of safety resources, simpler roadway infrastructure, poor emergency medical services, and risky driver behaviors. The biggest culprits are not wearing a seat belt, impaired driving, speeding, and distraction, noted GHSA Executive Director Jonathan Adkins.

“Roads are the backbone of rural America, connecting far-flung communities and families. While cities and urban areas have alternatives to driving, that’s not the case for people in rural areas,” he said in a statement.

Jonathan Adkins. Photo via GHSA.

“Unfortunately, the dangerous and deadly driving behaviors that have increased during the pandemic have taken an oversized toll on rural residents,” Adkins pointed out. “Making rural roads safer is essential for achieving the national goal of zero fatalities.”

To prevent rural road crashes and save lives, states, tribes, and their partners must understand the unique challenges associated with rural roads, GHSA stressed – long distances, limited resources, cultural differences and more.

GHSA added that this new report – produced by Toxcel, a Virginia-based consulting firm – offers a comprehensive look at the rural road issue through an in-depth analysis of federal data; input from an expert panel representing government, academic, and nonprofit organizations; findings of a survey of State Highway Safety Offices; and peer-reviewed and other relevant literature.

The analysis of Fatality Analysis Reporting System data analyzed for this report uncovered many details regarding who faces the highest risks and what risky driving behaviors are key factors:

  • Men are involved in rural crashes at a far higher rate than women – by more than two to one – mirroring male ‘over-involvement’ in crashes of all types. During the five-year period analyzed for this report, 59,793 men died in rural road crashes compared to 25,151 women.
  • The youngest drivers are at particular risk on rural roads. In 2020, rural fatalities for young teen drivers jumping by 57 percent, mirroring the national uptick in roadway deaths in the first year of the pandemic.
  • The risk to young drivers does not dissipate when they turn 18 years old. Instead, they continue to crash and die on rural roads well into their 20s and at exceptionally high rates, the highest of any age group. Fatality rates then decline with age until the mid-forties when they climb again. Meanwhile, adults ages 65 and older make up 19 percent of the rural population yet account for 21 percent of rural road deaths.
  • A lack of seat belt use is a hallmark of fatalities on rural roads. More than half (58 percent) of U.S. motor vehicle occupants killed in rural road crashes during the five-year period were not wearing seat belts. By comparison, in 2020, 51 percent of all road fatalities were not wearing seat belts.
  • Speeding is a safety problem on all types of roads, but especially in rural areas, where it is a factor in 27 percent of deaths. Nearly half (46 percent) 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 percent of alcohol-related motor vehicle fatalities occurred on a rural road. Drug-impaired drivers killed 2,644 people on rural roads in 2020, but that figure is likely an undercount, as nearly twice as many crash deaths (5,335) have no information about potential drug involvement.
  • Of all fatalities that involved distraction, 46 percent occurred on rural roads – far more than the population would predict. At least 7,699 people died on rural roads in crashes involving driver distraction over the five-year period, although data are limited because distraction can be difficult for law enforcement or crash scene investigators to ascertain.
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