The dangers of driving in rural America

Nick DiUlio
Here’s the good news: If you live in a small city or rural area, you’re going to pay less for auto insurance than you would in a metropolis. The bad news? Your chances of getting into a fatal crash are significantly greater.
According to a recent report by federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most traffic deaths occur in rural areas, and death rates from car crashes progressively increase the more rural an area is.
The study, which looked at crash statistics from 2007 through 2009, found that for males living in the most rural counties, the age-adjusted traffic death rate per 100,000 drivers was 37.6 — nearly three times as high as in the most urban counties.
The same difference held true for females, who experienced an accident death rate of 16.1 in the most rural counties compared with just 5 in the most urban counties.
The findings may seem surprising. After all, logic suggests that the more populated and congested an area the more vehicles are on the road. Thus more accidents, right? Wrong … sort of.
“The first time I read about this study, I was shocked and wondered how this could be,” says Anne Marie Hayes, a certified driving instructor who is president of the Teens Learn to Drive Foundation. “But the fact is that, yes, there are far more crashes in the city, but the majority of them are at lower speeds and less devastating. So when you get into a collision in a rural area, it’s deadly.”
Reasons behind rural risk
According to the most recent data from the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 63 percent of crash deaths occurred in rural areas in 2009. Spokesman Russ Rader says the reasons are varied.
“It’s really not surprising when you think about it,” Rader says. “The number one contributing factor is speed. In rural areas, people are generally driving at higher speeds, which means that when they crash, the accident is often more severe.”
According to the most recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data, people killed in speed-related crashes represented almost one-third of the deaths in car crashes. In rural areas, 33 percent of traffic deaths occurred in speeding-related crashes, compared with 31 percent in urban areas.
Moreover, Rader says, rural areas often involve roadside hazards, such as trees and drainage ditches, that can worsen the severity of a high-speed crash.
“In addition to speeding, another issue that isn’t talked about much is something called driver conditioning,” Hayes says. “In rural areas, you have these long stretches of road that tend to be fairly straight, and so drivers aren’t necessarily accustomed to reducing speeds or stopping suddenly.”
The prevalence of drunk driving in rural communities also may play a role. According to a 2007 NHTSA study that looked at the differences between rural and urban crash deaths, rural areas accounted for 57 percent of drunk-driving-related deaths, compared with 43 percent in urban areas.
Seat belt use -- or lack of it -- could be another contributing factor. According to a 2007 nationwide survey, the seat belt use rate among occupants of cars in urban areas was 84 percent, while it was 78 percent in rural areas.
It’s possible that this seat belt disparity stems partly from the fact that rural drivers feel more relaxed on the road. According to a recent survey conducted by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Excellence in Rural Safety, 69 percent of Americans re­sponded that they felt safe on multilane freeways in urban areas, while 79 percent felt safe on two-lane highways in rural areas.
The study suggests that this increased feeling of relaxation on rural roads may contribute to an increase in risky driving behavior. For instance, among rural residents, 44 percent said they felt safe using a cellphone on rural highways, compared with 14 percent on urban highways.
Finally, there’s access to medical care. According to Adam Powell,
According to Adam Powell, president of Boston health care consulting firm Payer+Provider Syndicate, a recent study on severe rural accidents found that in car crashes with survivors, the average emergency medical response time in an urban setting was 6.8 minutes. In a rural setting, the average response time was 13.9 minutes.
“I wasn’t particularly surprised by the CDC data,” Powell says. “The bottom line is that in rural areas, it takes longer to get to a hospital than it does in an urban area. Combine that with higher speeds, and we see what may be contributing to the greater dangers seen on rural roads.”
Rural auto insurance is cheaper
Regardless of death rates, far more auto insurance claims are filed each year in urban areas than in rural ones. This means that if you live in an urban area, you're going to pay more for auto insurance.
According to a 2008 study by the Insurance Research Council, 80 percent of car crash claims occurred in urban areas. Furthermore, the Highway Loss Data Institute found that the frequency of crash and injury claims was much higher in the most densely populated areas of the country.
“The big thing insurers look for in determining premiums is what their previous claims experience has been in a certain area,” says Mike Barry, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute. “What they find is that in rural areas, they have significantly fewer claims for vandalism and auto theft, and fewer accidents by virtue of that fact that there are fewer cars. That’s why it’s more expensive to insure your vehicle in the city.”

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