States are intensifying efforts to reduce traffic fatalities on rural roads to counter a reality of highway safety: More Americans die on lonely country routes than on more congested urban roads. In 2008, 56% of the USA’s 37,261 traffic deaths occurred on rural roads, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. About 23% of the population lives in rural areas.
The focus on rural highway deaths comes at a time when traffic fatalities in general — even those on country roads — are dropping. Overall U.S. traffic deaths dropped last year amid record-high gas prices and the recession. The decline was less on rural roads even though drivers there cut travel more sharply. Rural traffic fatalities have declined steadily to 20,905 last year from 25,896 in 2002.
In every state — even Massachusetts, which has the lowest percentage of rural fatalities — there are more rural deaths per 100 million miles traveled than urban fatalities.
A key reason: People drive faster on rural roads, which are not as well-engineered as urban highways, increasing the likelihood of death or severe injury in crashes. Other factors: behavioral differences, including more drunken driving and less use of seat belts in rural areas, and slower delivery of acute medical care. In Montana, the average response time for emergency medical rescue is about 80 minutes, compared with about 15 minutes in Massachusetts. In Colorado for 2008, there were a total of 548 deaths with 296 occurring on rural roads , a rate of 54% for rural roads.