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Back to Archives | Back to January 2010 Contents 

Highway Safety Initiatives

Rural Fatal Crashes—A Grim Scene

By Richard J. Ashton, Chief of Police (Retired), Frederick, Maryland; and Grant/ Technical Management Manager, IACP

This is the first of two columns dealing with rural fatal crashes. The second will appear in the February 2010 issue.

ural America, where about a quarter of the United States’ population lived in 2007,1 supplies nourishment to the world, offers the allure of a way of life that is far less hectic and complicated than that of urban dwellers, and is home to nearly 80 percent of this country’s roadway miles.2 Unfortunately, even though rural roads carry only about a third of U.S. traffic, they nevertheless account for more than half of its traffic fatalities, 57 percent in 2007 alone.3 The fatality rate per 100 million vehicle-miles-traveled was 2.5 times higher in rural areas than in urban ones in 2007 (2.21 and 0.88, respectively). In every state, there were more deaths per 100 million vehicle-miles-traveled in rural areas than in urban ones.4

Rural crash fatalities are characterized differently from urban ones and likely occur on roadways that were built multiple decades ago and obviously were not engineered to today’s standards. Like urban crashes, they involve speed, alcohol-impairment, lack of occupant protection, and large trucks, but all of them in greater numbers. For example, rural drivers accounted for more than three of every five drivers found in 2006 to have been speeding, drinking, and unrestrained; and 57 percent of rural drivers involved in fatal crashes had been speeding.5 As a matter of fact, more than two-thirds of rural fatal crashes in 2007 occurred on roadways where the posted speed limit was 55 miles per hour (mph) or more compared to about one-third of urban fatal crashes where that limit was greater than 50 mph. Similarly, 64 percent of the fatal crashes involving large trucks (gross vehicle weight rating greater than 10,000 pounds) occurred in rural areas.6

More than one-quarter of all fatal crashes in 2006 occurred on horizontal curves, predominantly on two-lane rural roadways.7 About seven out of ten of these crashes involved single vehicles running off the road and either striking objects or overturning.

Of the 12,998 people killed in alcohol-impaired-driving crashes in 2007, 57 percent of those crashes occurred in rural areas and about the same percentage of drivers operating with blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) of .08 grams per deciliter (g/dL) or higher. Additionally, three out of every five drivers who were involved in rural fatal crashes and who already had been convicted of one or more DWIs were alcohol-impaired.

The seat belt use rate among occupants of vehicles in rural areas in 2007 was 78 percent, compared to 84 percent in urban areas. Just under two-thirds of the 28,933 passenger vehicle occupants killed were in rural areas, and more than half of them were unrestrained. Significantly, two-thirds of the passenger vehicle occupants killed in vehicles that rolled over were unrestrained. The likelihood of death in rollover crashes is exponentially aggravated by not using an occupant restraint, as
Table 1 demonstrates.

Table 1. Percentages of Rollover Fatal Crashes in Rural and Urban Areas by Vehicle Type, 2007
Vehicle TypeRuralUrban
Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV)4323
Passenger Cars2311
Large Trucks179

A number of factors coalesce to delay medical responses to rural crashes. Detecting, especially single-vehicle run-off-the-road crashes, can be problematical in sparsely populated areas. Once they actually are located, getting first responders to crash sites takes twice as long in rural communities as it does in urban ones8 because of the sheer distance involved. The longer response time often is exacerbated by law enforcement agencies that do not provide round-the-clock services and by volunteer fire and rescue companies where responders must first travel to their stations to secure emergency vehicles. Consequently, of the 26,480 drivers killed in fatal crashes in 2007, almost two-thirds of rural and about half of urban drivers died at the crash scene. Forty percent of all drivers killed were transported to hospitals, and four percent of them died en route. Rural drivers represented 60 percent of those who died en route; urban drivers, 37 percent.

Unlike those in urban areas, rural fatalities in general, as well as those involving alcohol-impaired driving, have been declining. However, they still pose a far more serious problem than many realize and require the development and implementation of sound strategies to mitigate the daunting challenges they represent. Tactics to curb these crashes will be explored in next month’s column. ■


1Unless otherwise noted, statistics in this column were derived from NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis, “Rural/Urban Comparison,” Traffic Safety Facts: 2007 Data, DOT HS 810 996, April 2009, (accessed November 12, 2009).
2Federal Highway Administration, Serving Rural America, FHWA-EP-01-033 HEP-01/9-01(1M)E, December 22, 2008, (accessed November 16, 2009).
3U.S. Department of Transportation, “Rural Safety Initiative,” February 2008, (accessed November 12, 2009).
4Larry Copeland, “More Motorists Die on Rural Roads,” USA Today, October 6, 2009, (accessed November 12, 2009).
5U.S. Department of Transportation, “Rural Safety Initiative.”
6NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis, “Large Trucks,” Traffic Safety Facts: 2008 Data, DOT HS 811 158, September 2009, (accessed November 12, 2009).
7Federal Highway Administration, Techbrief: Safety Evaluation of Improved Curve Delineation, FHWAHRT-09-046, August 2009, (accessed November 12, 2009).
8NHTSA, Traffic Crashes Take Their Toll on RuralRoads, December 2006, DOT HS 810 658, 6, (accessed November 12, 2009).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 1, January 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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