Rural roads pose greater safety risk

Q: I read with interest earlier this year the report on Pennsylvania highway fatalities for 2012. There were a lot of data in addition to the 2 percent increase in total roadway fatalities versus 2011 that might suggest 2012 did not qualify as another year of fatalities 'trending downward.' Most interesting, though, was the disproportionate number of fatalities per crash in Schuylkill County compared to the same ratio in Carbon, Lehigh, Monroe and Northampton counties. Is that all about the roads? Speed limits? A disastrous crash or two? Patrol coverage? Or was the high Schuylkill fatality rate attributable to some other factor?

— Tom Owens, Easton


A: I believe the correct answer to be "all of the above," Tom. A leading factor is the narrow, winding and hilly nature of rural roads, with their many blind curves, tight intersections short sight distances.

I would think they're also harder to maintain and repair, and in particular, harder to keep clear of dangerous snow and ice. Just as it's easier to drive on relatively straight, flat roadways, salting and plowing in expansive rural areas would seem more challenging.

According to studies including a comprehensive 2006 review by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, rural roads are more dangerous than those in urban areas. Contrary to what I would have surmised, rural car crashes occur at more than twice the rate of those in cities.

We tend to think of cities as dangerous places, in part because population density pushes up crime rates and related injuries and deaths, which in turn draw the high beams of media attention. But our headlights are trained on roadway fatalities, and the Federal Highway Administration found that 40 percent of vehicle miles traveled, and 60 percent of all fatal crashes, occur on rural roads, with rural residents as the victims, even though only 20 percent of the U.S. population reside in rural areas.

"In 2004, 59 percent [24,975] of the 42,636 people who died in motor vehicle crashes were traveling on rural roads," the study found. "This includes drivers, occupants, pedestrians, motorcyclists, and [bicyclists]. The percentage rises to 65 percent when looking only at rural passenger-vehicle fatalities: 20,302 occupants killed in passenger cars, pickup trucks, and sport utility vehicles on rural roads."

And here's a key finding: More than half of the 20,302 people who lost their lives on rural roads in 2011 were "unrestrained" — not wearing their seat belts or being buckled into child-safety seats. For some reason, country motorists tend to be less diligent about buckling up, the federal stats pointing to males and to pickup truck pilots in particular. The feds recommend primary seat belt laws — police can stop motorists solely for being unbelted — and their enforcement, as well as stepped-up public service ads and programs like Buckle Up America to get the message out more effectively. Pennsylvania is not among the 33 states that have a primary seat belt law.

PennDOT safety specialist Steve Pohowsky confirmed the principle of higher danger factors on rural roads. "Fifty-eight percent of all [roadway] fatalities occur on two-lane rural roads," Pohowsky said. "Urbanized areas are a lot more safe," in part because the roads "get a lot more attention" in terms of maintenance and repair, signalization and other safety-boosting measures, he said. Lower population density in rural areas makes it harder to generate funding for roadway improvements, including those that increase safety.

While many factors cause or contribute to traffic accidents, vehicles running off the road and striking fixed objects, often trees, make up the primary cause, Pohowsky said. "You have that in our rural counties" including Schuylkill, he said.

Among the other factors he cited: Rural drivers tend to go faster, and when accidents occur, medical help is farther away. Here's a possible reason I dreamed up: A triple-fatality on Route 22 gets its deserved share of media attention, while the lone driver going off a dark rural road at night rates a few graphs a day later, after family members are notified. The single rural fatalities, not to be flippant about tragic events, tend to pile up statistically.

The FHWA study and others are filled with similar observations and conclusions. I would have assumed that higher traffic volume and prevailing speed in and around the cities and suburbs with their limited-access highways would surpass the rural danger factors, but that's not the case, according to the data I found.

The 2012 stats cited by PennDOT for the counties in District 6: Schuylkill County: 1,453 crashes, 33 fatalities; Monroe County: 2,256 crashes, 27 fatalities; Berks County, 4,704 crashes, 49 fatalities; Lehigh County: 4,641 crashes, 42 fatalities; Carbon County: 701 crashes, six fatalities, and Northampton County: 3,028 crashes, 23 fatalities.

That puts Schuylkill way out in the lead in this dubious road race, with a 2.27 percent fatality rate in auto accidents, nearly twice Monroe's second-place 1.19 percent. Berks follows at 1.04 percent, and the rest fall below 1 percent.

It's true that with such limited numbers, a multi-fatality crash or two can skew the average significantly, as you point out, Tom. Two accidents, each with three deaths — an awful but not-so-rare occurrence on American roadways — would have doubled Carbon's 2012 tally and surged the county past Berks and Monroe, into second place at 1.71 percent.

It's also true that the rates vary from year to year, with the counties changing positions. Schuylkill, for example, had only 19 fatalities in 2011. However, its five-year average through 2012 was 27 deaths per year, and the surprising (to me, anyway) elevated danger posed by rural versus urban roads seems pretty consistent.

"There is, in theory, nothing nicer than a drive in the country, away from the 'crazy traffic' of the city," writes Tom Vanderbilt in his 2008 best-seller, "Traffic." "But there is also nothing more dangerous. … Rural, non-interstate roads have a death rate more than 21/2 times higher than all other roads, even after adjusting for the fewer vehicles found on rural roads."

Road Warrior appears Mondays and Fridays, and the Warrior blogs at Email questions about roadways, traffic and transportation, with your name and the municipality where you live, to, or write to Road Warrior, Box 1260, Allentown, PA 18105-1260.

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