Driving out death
Every day, approximately 70 people die on rural roads. That adds up to 25,849 a year — more than 60 percent of all traffic fatalities in 2002, according to a recent U.S. General Accounting Office report, “Federal and State Efforts to Address Rural Road Safety.”
It may be surprising that more people die in rural road accidents than on urban highways, but what may be more unsettling is how little money is directed at addressing the problem. Only $330 million of the $27.4 billion in federal-aid highway funds awarded to states in 2003 can be tracked to rural road safety. That is despite the fact that, in 45 states, local jurisdictions own 75 percent or more of the rural roads.
In addition, many of the roads that need the most safety improvements are under the umbrella of cash-strapped local governments, according to a Washington, D.C.-based National Cooperative Highway Research Program study. As a result, although the federal government offers some grants and training, severe pressure is placed on local governments to find funding to develop cost-effective ways to lower the rural road fatality rate.
A program that worked
One county has created a cost-effective program that has achieved a 42 percent reduction in traffic fatalities over 10 years. The Road System Traffic Safety Reviews, developed by the Mendocino County, Calif., Department of Transportation (MCDOT), is designed to improve signs and markings on arterial and collector roads within the 3,310-square-mile county.
“[I looked at] all the accident reports to see what kind there were on these roads,” says Stephen Ford, a civil engineer who co-authored the reviews with fellow engineer Eugene Calvert. “I found most fatalities and injuries were people running off road, particularly in curves and turns.” Ford reviewed the signs and made modifications that would make them consistent for specific conditions, such as speed limits for 90-degree turns.
Funding for the review has ranged from $7,200 to $10,500 annually for the past 10 years. An additional $46,000 for the signs replaced in the first three-year cycle came from the federal Hazard Elimination Safety Program through the state’s Department of Transportation (DOT). Of the 11,000 county road signs, MCDOT has replaced about 2,400 over the life of the program.
In 1995, the county spent $18,000 for markers to clearly define roadside obstacles, such as bridge abutments and trees, and the road’s edge. Today, if a road is at least one mile long with one accident over a year, it is reviewed.
By 1998, Ford began evaluating the program, beginning with 19 roads around Ukiah, Mendocino’s county seat. The results were startling: a 42 percent reduction in accidents on roads with little traffic. Savings on accident costs ranged from $12.58 million to $23.73 million, according to the California DOT, which estimates a $34,100 cost for each crash.
Mendocino’s success caught the attention of the Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP), a federal program with centers across the country. The program was created in 1982 by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to assist local governments with training, technology updates and technical assistance to improve the more than 3 million miles of roads and 29,000 bridges maintained by counties, cities and towns.
Word of the county program’s low cost and effectiveness has spread to officials at both the national and state levels of government. A two-day seminar of the program sponsored by the Morgantown, W.Va.-based National Local Technical Assistance Program Association will be held in Ukiah at the end of September.
The seminar will teach participants how Mendocino improved its rural roads and secured funding. “We will take people out on the roads and let them see what was done [to make Mendocino’s program successful],” says Gib Peaslee, the seminar’s coordinator.
Four fatal factors
Rural road fatalities are caused by four primary factors: human behavior, the care victims receive after a crash, unsafe vehicles and hazardous roadway conditions. Rural roads are “bad, specifically, because of the lack of markings,” says Alan Pisarski, a travel behavior analyst and author of “Commuting in America.” “The speed limits are probably a little higher than they should be, and people are passing on roads they shouldn’t be.”
Added to the fatal mix are fast cars traveling with slow vehicles, such as farm equipment. The potential for accidents rises with a larger number of vehicles moving at different speeds, Pisarski says. “As long as everybody is going about the same speed, it tends to be a safer situation,” he says.
Failure to use seat belts is another contributing factor to all vehicle deaths. A 2003 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report notes that 62 percent of people between the ages of 15 and 20 dying in rural vehicle crashes were not wearing seat belts compared to only 55 percent of their urban counterparts. The report says that awareness campaigns directed at that age group in rural communities are needed to raise the level of seat belt use.
Only 20 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico had primary seat belt laws at the end of 2003. With primary seat belt laws, police officers can cite someone who is not wearing a seat belt, while secondary seat belt laws require an officer to observe another offense — such as speeding or drunk driving — before issuing a seat belt citation.
At the federal level
“We’ve been trying to create a Rural Road Safety Program in federal bill TEA-21 (Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century),” says Bob Fogel, senior legislative director for the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Counties (NACo). The program, which is currently in the House version of the transportation funding bill, has a $675 million price tag — money that would be spent over six years to improve signs, markings, intersections, lights and to make other safety enhancements. “Much of the federal focus has been changing behavior,” Fogel says, citing examples such as seat belt and drunk driving awareness campaigns. “This program is focused on upgrading roads so that they’re safer.”
Critics that argue against more funding for rural roads say that it costs the same amount of money per mile to lay down safety devices, such as rumble strips, on rural roads as it does on major urban roads, which have a much larger volume of cars. Therefore, the most money should be spent where the majority of drivers travel, they say.
Despite the road-less-traveled argument, the 21 percent of the population that live in rural areas actually account for 39.5 percent of the total vehicle miles traveled on rural roads. In short, in spite of the fact that most drivers travel on busy interstates in urban areas, people who live in rural areas spend more time on their roads, which are rural.
However, the longer TEA-21 is extended, the worse the news is for transportation, says Tony Giancola, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of County Engineers (NACE). He says the money is needed to plan projects, and further delays only exacerbate the problem of making repairs quickly. While engineers wait for an election-year delay in passing TEA-21, cities and counties are currently being funded up to last year’s funding levels, and they cannot plan future projects without funding commitments from the federal government.
In addition to LTAP Centers and NACo’s efforts, the FHWA is developing a number of other programs to aid local governments with road safety issues. For example, the FHWA has developed a 511 system, similar to a 411 phone system, that is being implemented in 25 states. Travelers dial 511 on their cell phones to better gauge their travel routes with current information about road conditions and traffic. While the 511 system is being used in urban areas, officials expect it to be ready in rural areas in the future.
The FHWA also is working with NACE to create a pilot program that would fund LTAP safety circuit writer positions. The new positions would be devoted exclusively to safety issues such as flagger training and worker safety. The pilot program is expected to be conducted in two to five LTAP centers this fiscal year.
FHWA also is working on a series of guide books that address safety issues for specific engineering features. “Road Safety Fundamentals” is a book and training course slated to be completed and available through LTAP centers by spring 2005. The group also is working on taking road safety audit information and converting the data into checklists and guidelines that may be useful to local governments.
States and rural road safety
Giancola notes that while local governments control the majority of rural roadways, many states — like Virginia, most of North Carolina and Pennsylvania — maintain them. As a part of Pennsylvania’s campaign to reduce roadway fatalities by 10 percent by 2005, it has introduced 300 miles of centerline rumble strips that alert drivers when they have strayed from their lanes. It also has painted dots on the roadways to help drivers gauge whether they are following at a safe distance.
With the highest number of people killed on rural roads in the nation in 2002, Texas DOT officials have identified 235 hazard elimination projects, most of which are on rural roads, to be addressed in fiscal year 2004. The projects include adding intersection beacon lights and rumble strips, widening lanes and removing trees.
Texas DOT engineers also assessed 30,000 miles of rural two-lane highways in 2003 for appropriate speed limits, signs, pavement markings and drop-off or curve warnings. Like Pennsylvania, Texas is installing rumble strips, but it is putting them on the shoulders of four-lane rural highways. The state also is researching the value of edgeline and centerline rumble strips on other roads.
Nearly 77 percent of the 8,223,393 lane miles in the U.S. are located in rural areas. The byways represent a real danger to America’s drivers and local policy makers. Although improvements to rural highway safety have been made, local governments will continue to be challenged to institute costly measures, mostly without federal and state support. In the meantime, as city and county officials try to figure out how to improve safety on rural roads, 70 more people will be dying each day.
Sibley Fleming is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.
Fatality Rates by Type of Rural Road, 2002
|Other principal arterial:||1.90|
|Source: GAO presentation of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Federal Highway Administration data|
Where Fatalities Occur
|Source: Federal Highway Administration|
Rural Roads Percentage Not State Owned, 2002
|25% or less||4|
|Source: Federal Highway Administration|