Disproportionate Number of Traffic Deaths Occur on Rural Roads: Report

Many of those traffic deaths are avoidable if drivers wear seat belts, follow speed limits and do not engage in distracted driving activities, data suggests.

Government highway safety officials are warning about the increased risks associated with auto accidents in rural areas, where occupants are more likely to speed and less likely to wear seat belts, resulting in high traffic deaths rates than are seen in urban counties.

A new report (PDF) was issued this month by the Governor’s Highway Safety Association (GHSA), indicating that while only 19% of the population lives in rural areas, these roadways account for nearly half of all traffic deaths in the U.S.

Despite advancements in vehicle safety, U.S. National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) officials have recorded consecutive increases in overall car accident deaths over the last several years, with 33,244 fatalities in 2019, 38,824 in 2020, and 42,915 in 2021.

While there are several reasons for the rise in fatal vehicle accidents, behavioral factors such as not wearing seatbelts, distracted driving and speeding continue to remain high on the list, causing thousands of deaths and serious injuries to pedestrians, cyclists and motor vehicle occupants annually.

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In this new report, researchers examined data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) and found 85,002 people were killed in rural road crashes between 2106 and 2020. The risk of dying in a crash on a rural road was 62% higher when compared to an urban road for the same trip length, the researchers found.

GHSA researchers suggest the disparity is due to a combination of factors, such as lack of safety resources, poor emergency response times and open roads that allow the opportunity for riskier driving behaviors.

The majority of the crash deaths occurred on open roads, rather than at intersections. Of the 85,002 rural road deaths, 71,634 occurred on open roadways compared to 13,138 occurring at intersections. Single driver road departures or head on collisions were found to be the top contributing crash types, accounting for 47,082 of all fatal crash types.

The report indicates that a lack of seatbelt use was the leading behavioral culprit for fatal crashes, with 58% of the motor vehicle occupants killed on rural roadways not wearing a seatbelt at the time of the accident. Additional leading factors to rural roadway deaths included impaired driving, speeding and distractions; data which may explain the high rates of road departures and head-on collisions.

Men were more than twice as likely to be killed in rural accidents as women. Specifically, young white males between their late teens and early twenties were found to be at the highest risk. Researchers also found on the opposite end of the spectrum, elderly adults age 65 years and older accounted for 21% of these car crash deaths, while only making up 19% of the rural population.

Traffic Death Rates Increasing In Recent Years

The NHTSA released a report late last month of the early estimates of traffic fatalities for the first quarter of 2022, finding that at least 29 states reported increases over the first quarter of 2021.

The report found at least 9,560 deaths from motor vehicle traffic crashes in the first quarter of 2022, which is a 7% increase over the 8,935 fatalities projected for the same quarter in 2021. According to the newest estimates, 2022 may be on track for yet another consecutive increase in motor vehicle deaths.

While the causes of these increased auto accident deaths were not identified in the report, officials noted several states saw particularly significant increases; with Delaware seeing a 163.2% increase, a 62.5% increase in the District of Columbia, a 37.6% increase in New York and a 51.2% increase in North Carolina.

Pedestrian Fatalities

Pedestrian accident deaths have been a special topic of focus in recent years, as rates of pedestrian deaths caused by motor vehicle collisions have increased sharply. The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) released a pedestrian fatality report last year finding that for year-over-year comparisons, pedestrian deaths from traffic accidents increased by 4.8% in 2020.

The number of pedestrian fatalities skyrocketed by the beginning of 2022, with a total of 7,485 people struck by vehicles while walking in 2021, which is the most in a single year in four decades.


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