By Howard Berkes
The final story in NPR's week-long series "On the Road to Safety" focused on the nation's most dangerous roads -- rural highways extending beyond cities and suburbs. I reported in that story the clear and convincing statistics from the National Highway Transportation Administration: 56% of the country's traffic fatalities take place on rural roads, even though only 23% of the nation's population lives in rural America.
But how deadly depends on how rural the road actually turns out to be, according to further analysis of the NHTSA numbers, and NHTSA's own new numbers crunching.
These additional analyses show the risk in making firm declarations about any rural trend. Different government agencies define rural differently. In fact, some clearly remote and sparsely populated towns complained bitterly a few years ago when the Office of Management and Budget changed its definition of rural and made these places metropolitan or micropolitan, even though locals couldn't see, hear or smell any city from there.
It takes someone steeped in the nuances of rural statistics and government definitions to sort this stuff out so I turned to John Cromartie, a rural geographer at the Economic Research Service, an agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Last year, Cromartie co-authored a thorough article on the multiple and competing definitions of rural that you can read here.
As Cromartie noted:
The nation's rural population "ranges from 17 to 49%, depending on the definition used."
NHTSA uses the Census Bureau's definition of rural in pinpointing the locations of traffic accidents. Basically, any place outside a city or town of more than 2,500 people is rural in the Census world. So, in those places beyond the boundaries of even the smallest cities, the share of highway fatalities approaches 60%.
But the portion of fatalities on rural roads drops to just 27%, according to Cromartie's analysis, if only small towns (of less than 2,500) and the low-density countryside are included in the calculation. Throw together the cities, suburbs and exurbs (outer suburbs) and the urban share of fatalities rises to 70%.
NHTSA itself bolstered this fresh statistical perspective in a report released on Monday. It takes traffic fatalities and plots them based on proximity to cities. And it concludes that a whopping 86% of traffic deaths occur in cities and in the first 10 miles of rural highway adjacent to cities. Just five miles outside of town the number is 73%.
This seems to indicate that the farther out you drive the safer you'll be, at least statistically and generally. Get down to specific states and highways and the risk changes. In largely rural states (Wyoming, South Dakota and Montana) the rural share of highway deaths remains close to 60%, even with this proximity analysis. But even states with vast rural regions, like Pennsylvania, have the highest fatality rates within 10 miles of cities.
The new NHTSA study says that this proximity perspective is instructive. "Highway safety planners seeking to reduce rural fatalities in these states should concentrate their resources in the rural areas adjoining urban areas," the study concludes.
That would seem to feed into the highway safety funding disparity described by Jerry Donaldson of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
"The highways that need the money most are the ones that will usually get the least," Donaldson told NPR, in reference to dangerous rural roads. "And the reason is because you put your money where you already have a ... highway with higher traffic volumes serving a more densely populated area."
Donaldson also notes that the actual rate of fatalities based on miles driven is still higher on rural roads no matter where they are.
"The question is whether you are counting fatalities or measuring travel risk by the number of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled," Donaldson added. "By the latter measure, rural highways outside the 10-mile perimeter, especially two-lane, two-way roads with poor alignment, cross-section, and roadside design, are clearly -- and by far -- the most dangerous highways."
The fatality rate on rural roads, per 100 million miles traveled, is 2.5 times the fatality rate on urban roads
For evidence of the danger, consider the section of U.S. Highway 6 in Utah that was featured in my story. Its most dangerous sections are not within 10 miles of even the most loosely defined boundaries of any city. Activists demanding safety improvements found it difficult to compete with highway projects in and closer to population centers.
The new NHTSA study does not characterize the types of highways within the 10 mile buffer zones adjacent to cities, so it's difficult to know whether these are highways with outdated designs in need of safety upgrades. It's not known whether they have four lanes or two.
So, generally, highways in rural areas are still more deadly.
If all this is a bit too complicated to discern, just do this: Slow down; stay alert; buckle that seat belt; put down the cell phone; and be vigilant. That improves your odds everywhere.
(Howard Berkes is NPR's rural affairs correspondent.)