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Back to Archives | Back to February 2010 Contents 

Highway Safety Initiatives

Rural Fatal Crashes—Reasonable Solutions

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

This is the second of two columns dealing with Rural Fatal Crashes. The first appeared in the January 2010 issue.

ast month’s column defined the scope of rural fatal crashes, which can be mitigated effectively by harnessing the four Es of highway safety: education, emergency medical services (EMS), enforcement, and engineering.

Law enforcement needs both accurate and timely crash data, which then can be analyzed quickly to pinpoint what is causing collisions at particular locations and times. While it can allocate its limited resources to affect these incidents, it also can involve its transportation partners to tackle the engineering challenges of rural roadways and media outlets to educate drivers of problems and forthcoming actions. Agencies might consider maximizing their efforts by targeting simultaneously both crimes and crashes through initiatives such as Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety (DDACTS), jointly operated by NHTSA, the Bureau of Justice Assistance, and the National Institute of Justice.1

Shoulder rumble strips have proven quite effective in preventing roadway departure crashes. They have alerted drivers distracted by alcohol or other drugs, fatigue, or other inattention and simultaneously have afforded law enforcement officers and other roadside workers opportunities to escape imminent danger. Building on their effectiveness, the Washington State Department of Transportation, along with the states of Iowa and Missouri,2 has achieved success with centerline rumble strips. Washington’s analysis of highways before and after their installation yielded a 57 percent reduction in serious injury and fatal crossover collisions.3

Improving signage on horizontal curves appears to be another cost-effective approach to reducing deaths. A Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) study of 89 sites in Connecticut, where warning or curve delineation signs were upgraded, and of 139 sites in the state of Washington, where only chevrons were installed, found that the improved demarcation of curves led to “substantial and highly significant crash reductions—injury and fatal (18 percent), dark conditions (27.5 percent), and dark condition lane departure (25.4 percent).”4 FHWA estimated that the annualized cost per curve would be between $160 and $343, depending upon the cost per sign.

The lack of public transportation in rural areas can present significant challenges to both alcohol-impaired offenders and their families. If those convicted are breadwinners and are fortunate enough to still be gainfully employed, they face a
catch-22, since they are obliged to support their families, but find themselves without transportation to their jobs. This realistically may encourage those offenders to drive after conviction and driver’s license suspension; the prospect of apprehension prior to involvement in a crash may be remote in rural areas. However, ignition interlocks may offer a viable alternative—but by no means a panacea—to individuals in this situation and have been quite successful in New Mexico. Also, police agencies using automated license plate recognition technology might consider programming their units to scan for the registration plates of those on probation for alcohol offenses and mandated to use ignition interlocks, so their whereabouts can be more effectively monitored.

Low-staffing sobriety checkpoints, coupled with saturation patrols, also can demonstrate economically law enforcement’s seriousness in addressing the impaired driving problem. Bringing together officers and deputies from smaller rural agencies can promote cooperation and camaraderie and can be a force multiplier. Low-Staffing Sobriety Checkpoints was tailored to provide specific guidance to smaller agencies wishing to implement sobriety checkpoints consistent with their resources.5 While the Fairfax County, Virginia, Police Department no longer serves a rural population, it institutionalized checkpoints in 2003, essentially using one onduty officer from each of its eight districts to man weekly four-hour checkpoints or directed patrols coordinated by its Traffic Safety Division at locations recommended by the districts, and remains a viable model for reducing crashes and increasing arrests without incurring overtime costs.

NHTSA predicts that the full implementation of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 126, requiring the installation of electronic stability control systems by Model Year 2012 in 100 percent of passenger cars, multipurpose passenger vehicles, trucks, and buses with a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,000 pounds or less, will reduce between 42 percent to 55 percent the more than 10,000 deaths each year that result from rollover crashes alone.6

Maryland provides a blueprint for emergency medicine, opening in 1960 what would become the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center with the Maryland State Police initiating medevacs in 1969, and inaugurating the first statewide EMS system in 1973.7 Significantly, Dr. R. Adams Cowley built the Shock Trauma Center on the “Golden Hour” premise: “There is a golden hour between life and death. If you are critically injured you have less than 60 minutes to survive. You might not die right then; it may be three days or two weeks later—but something has happened in your body that is irreparable.”8

Other opportunities to considerably improve medical responses in rural crashes are being explored. Focused training, like the Guide For Preparing Medical Directors, a Web-based course aimed at improving the quality of treatment prior to arrival at a medical facility,9 expands the competence of first responders; and programs, like OnStar by GM’s Automatic Crash Response,10 can determine via global positioning system (GPS) technology the exact location of crashes and can assess the severity of the injuries sustained based upon the type of crash detected, allowing appropriate assistance to be promptly dispatched to precise locations.

Regrettably, there is no silver bullet available to eliminate all fatalities in rural areas. However, past efforts, current developments, and the ingenuity of those embodying the four Es will continue to reduce crashes and save lives. ■


1For additional information, see James H. Burch II and Michael N. Geraci, “Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety,” The Police Chief 76 (July 2009): 18-23.
2Larry Copeland, “More Motorists Die on Rural Roads,” USA Today, October 7, 2009.
3Washington State Department of Transportation, The Gray Book, 34th ed. (August 20, 2009).
4Federal Highway Administration, Techbrief: Safety Evaluation of Improved Curve Delineation, FHWA publication no. FHWA-HRT-09-046 (August 2009).
5NHTSA, Low-Staffing Sobriety Checkpoints, NHTSA publication no. DOT HS 809 999 (April 2006).
6NHTSA, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards; Electronic Stability Control Systems; Controls and Displays (April 5, 2007).
7University of Maryland Medical Center, “Tribute to R Adams Cowley, M.D.,” March 27, 2008, (accessed November 16, 2009).
9Critical Illness and Trauma Foundation, Inc., “Guide for Preparing Medical Directors,” (accessed November 12, 2009).
10OnStar by GM, OnStar, Plans & Services, “Automatic Crash Response,” (accessed November 2, 2009).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 2, February 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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