45% of roadway fatalities occur in rural areas
Living in a rural area offers great benefits — open spaces and room to enjoy nature and wildlife. Driving in a rural area brings benefits too, specifically the lack of traffic jams and stoplights. Conversely, driving in rural settings has challenges not found in urban areas including open spaces where wind and snow blow unencumbered, and wildlife becoming roadway obstacles.
A 2022 report from the Governors Highway Safety Association, “America’s Rural Roads: Beautiful and Deadly,” shows that between 2016 and 2022 just over 85,000 people died in rural road crashes. That is more than the populations of Manhattan and Garden City combined.
The report says the high rate of rural road crashes can be contributed to several factors — but what made the top of the list? Speeding, impaired driving, distraction and not wearing a seat belt.
I address rural road safety this month because August ushers in a season of “traffic” changes to our rural areas — school buses will be out in force (along with younger drivers), followed a month or so later by farm equipment for harvest. It will be as close to congested traffic as you will get in rural Kansas.
The report’s key point is that everyone is at risk on rural roads. However, during the five-year period of the report, 59,793 men died in rural road crashes compared to 25,151 women — a more than two to one disparity.
The youngest drivers are most at risk on rural roads. Fatalities on rural roads involving 14-15-year-old drivers declined between 2016 and 2019 but spiked in 2020, jumping by 57%, reflecting the national increase in roadway deaths in the first year of the pandemic.
Young drivers crash — and die — on rural roads into their 20s and at rates higher than any age group. Fatality rates decline with age until the mid-40s when they climb again. Adults ages 65 and older make up 19% of the rural population but account for 21% of rural road deaths. This will no doubt increase with the aging of the rural population.
Not wearing seat belts is a hallmark of rural road fatalities. More than half (58%) of U.S. motor vehicle occupants killed in rural road crashes during the five-year period of the study were unrestrained. Most of us spent our childhoods as free-range kids: We did not wear (or in some cases have) seat belts. We sat upfront in the passenger seat and relied on dad or mom to thrust an arm in front of us when it appeared a quick stop could send us into the dashboard. The choice to wear seat belts oftentimes came down to personal freedom, and it has taken decades to get in the habit of “clicking it” even now that it is the law.
Good habits are tough to initiate but even harder to break once they become part of your routine.
When running late for an appointment, work or school, we have all been guilty of speeding. The study found that speeding is a safety issue especially in rural areas, where it was a factor in 27% of deaths. Nearly half of crash fatalities involving speeding occurred on rural roads. Reminder: It is better to arrive late than never.
The report’s key point is that everyone is at risk on rural roads. With school soon underway and harvest around the corner, I urge you to slow down, buckle up and look out for your rural friends and neighbors.