If you live in rural Minnesota — or if you’re a city dweller who takes to country roads during the sweet summer months — you need to heed this new study at the University of Minnesota.
Americans feel safer on rural roads, more free to talk on the phone, step on the gas or sip a forbidden beer. After all, hardly anyone is around to get in your way. Right?
Your risk of dying on a rural highway is far greater than on an urban freeway, says [PDF] the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Twenty-three percent of Americans lived in rural areas in 2007, but some 57 percent of highway deaths occurred on rural roads that year.
Still, drivers feel freer to let down their guard on rural roads, according to a survey sponsored by the U of M’s Center for Excellence in Rural Safety.
‘We have a lot of education to do’
“They’re more relaxed and comfortable with risk-taking on the roads where they are most likely to be killed,” the center’s director, Lee Munnich, said in a statement about the findings. “We have a lot of education to do.”
In the national survey of 1,205 registered voters who drive at least once a week, 79 percent said they felt safe on two-lane highways in rural areas. By comparison, 69 percent said they felt safe on multilane freeways in urban areas.
And 38 percent responded that they felt relaxed on rural highways, compared with 19 percent who felt relaxed on urban freeways.
Feeling safe and relaxed might be fine. The problem is where those feeling lead. Drivers surveyed said they felt it was safer to use a cell phone on rural roads, to eat while driving and even to drink while driving.
Rural residents may be part of the problem: 44 percent of them said they felt safe using a cell phone on a rural highway versus 14 percent who felt safe suing a cell phone on an urban freeway.
An exception: speeding
One exception was speeding. About half of those polled felt safe speeding on urban freeways while one-third felt the same about rural highways.
In an open-ended question, survey respondents who felt safer on rural highways were asked for the reasons they felt this way. The most common answer (51 percent) was that there were just fewer things on the road to worry about: less traffic, less congestion and fewer people. The second most common answer (31 percent) was that the driver knew the area and felt comfortable in the area.
“Logic would dictate that drivers would be most cautious and alert on the most dangerous roads, but Americans seem to be lulled into a false sense of security on our tranquil rural highways,” Munnich said. “It’s a less chaotic experience, so it apparently feels like a safer experience. This is a myth we have to bust.”
The survey was conducted by Critical Insights of Portland, Maine, and based on a national random sample. The margin of error is +/- 2.8 percent.