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A drive in the country: drinking, speeding and no seat belts

Make a mental picture of your favorite drive along a rural road: cattails ring a small pond to the right; over to the left, black and white cows mow a sloping pasture; beyond a turn just ahead, corn is well into the magic of growing from small seed to towering stalk in just a few weeks.

It’s an iconic American experience, especially in July when so many of us escape the city’s concrete gridlock for a few days in the quieter countryside.

But a starkly different picture of the rural drive emerges from crash data. Without getting too graphic, imagine a pickup truck barreling down that same road, taking the turn at the corn field too fast and rolling over. No one inside was wearing a seat belt. And the nearest emergency room is 25 miles away.

While metro highways carry the bulk of the traffic, rural roads are far more dangerous by several measures. Just 23 percent of Americans live in rural areas, and their roads carry less than half of the nation’s traffic. Yet they account for more than half of the nation’s vehicular deaths, according to a report issued this year by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation. In 2006, for example, 55 percent of all motor vehicle fatalities occurred in rural crashes.

Rural safety initiative
In a move to reduce deaths on rural roads, the Transportation Department announced last week that the University of Minnesota will house a new national clearinghouse for information about making rural roads safer.

In Minneapolis for the announcement, U.S. Transportation Deputy Secretary Thomas J. Barrett said, “The only way we will cut the number of deaths and injuries on the nation’s roads is by finding a way to get officials the right information at the right time.”

The online clearinghouse was built by the University’s Center for Excellence in Rural Safety. It is intended to give local transportation officials and first responders up-to-date information gleaned from research and from safety efforts around the country. It also aims to alert communities to resources they can tap.

The clearinghouse is part of an overall national rural safety initiative which has $287 million in funding nationwide. The University of Minnesota was chosen for the clearinghouse because its well-established Center for Excellence in Rural Safety was equipped to handle the project. The new site can be seen here.

Transportation studies point to several reasons rural roads are so deadly.

One reason is that more rural residents shun seat belts, according to the national report. Last year 84 percent of American in urban areas said they buckle up compared to 78 percent in rural areas. A University of Minnesota study reported in December found that pickup truck drivers were the least likely in the state to use the belts.

Another factor highlighted in the national report was speeding. In 2006, 12,190 drivers involved in fatal crashes were speeding; 57 percent were in rural areas.

A third factor was drinking and driving. Of the deaths involving impaired driving crashes in 2006, 58 percent were in rural areas.

Safety goals
The lethal sum of these factors is that rural drivers made up 62 percent of total drivers in the nation found to have been drinking, speeding and driving without seat belts.

Finally, help is not as readily available on rural roads. Seventy-two percent of drivers who died en route to a hospital in 2006 were in rural areas.

National officials say much can be done to reduce the risks of death on rural roads. They are promoting the need to buckle up, sobriety checkpoints, crackdowns on speeding and greater deployment of ignition interlocks to combat drunk driving by repeat offenders.

Goals aimed at the vehicles themselves include more stability control to prevent rollovers and measures such as side curtain airbags to protect people during rollovers.

Another set of goals has to do with creating safer and smarter roads. Beyond improvements such as straightening out dangerous curves, researchers are developing high-tech fixes too. In Montana, for example, they are working on animal detection systems that warn drivers when deer and elk are on the highway. University of Minnesota researchers are testing technology that could reduce collisions at rural intersections lacking traffic signals. In Iowa, steps are underway to reduce night-time collisions at intersections with poor lighting.

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