Drivers feel safer on rural highways and are more likely to drink or engage in distracted driving on these roads, even though rural roads are the most dangerous in the USA, a new survey finds.
Though 23% of Americans live in rural areas, 57% of highway deaths occur on roads considered rural, according to the Center for Excellence in Rural Safety at the University of Minnesota. The center found that 84% of respondents feel "safe" on rural interstates and 79% on rural two-lane highways, compared with 69% on multilane freeways in urban areas.
"People seem to feel more comfortable on those roads, even though the facts show that it's more dangerous," says Lee Munnich, director of the center. "They feel more relaxed and, as a result, they are engaging in behavior that is riskier," such as eating or using phones while driving.
The one exception to the trend: Drivers by 47% to 33% said they felt safer speeding on urban freeways than on rural highways.
The survey of 1,205 registered voters who drive at least once a week was conducted March 23-May 26 and released today. It has a margin of error of +/–2.8 percentage points.
Traffic deaths on rural roads frequently involve single-vehicle wrecks in which drivers crash into trees, utility poles or other stationary objects. The survey appears to reflect drivers' overconfidence in their ability to avoid problems and a fallacy in the way people perceive risk, says Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. "The more people perceive they have control, the less they perceive a situation as being risky."
Kissinger says attention to the perils of rural driving is long overdue. "The transportation community has tended to underemphasize rural road safety," he says. "There's a long history of underinvestment in rural road safety in this country."
Rural roads often aren't as well-engineered as urban highways; rural drivers have lower rates of seat-belt use and higher drunken-driving rates, and acute medical care is often slower to reach crash victims.
The findings of the survey by the center, which is funded by the Federal Highway Administration, have potential policy implications. "We're trying to raise awareness among key leaders," Munnich says.
He urges more states to enact "primary" seat-belt laws. They allow police to ticket a driver solely for not buckling up. "Secondary" laws allow tickets only during stops for another offense.
"We know that primary seat-belt laws can make a difference," he says. "While 30 states have primary seat-belt laws, there are 20 that don't. Many or most of those that don't have significant rural populations. That's one thing that can be done."