While only 19% of Americans live in rural areas, almost 50% of fatal crashes occur on rural roads, according to a new report from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA).
Between 2016 and 2020, the five most recent years of data, 85,002 people lost their lives in collisions on rural roads. While rural road deaths fell for several years before the pandemic, they increased in 2020, reflecting a national trend. In fact, in 2020, the risk of dying in a crash was 62% higher on a rural road compared to an urban road for the same trip length.
Moreover, fatalities increased even further in 2021 on all types of rural roads including interstate, arterial, and collector/local roads.
Funded by State Farm, the GHSA report explores various details about fatalities in rural road crashes from 2016-2020 and examines risky driving behaviors contributing to the problem. The biggest culprits are lack of seat belt compliance, impaired driving, speeding, and distraction.
Failure to use a seat belt is a hallmark of fatalities on rural roads. Some 58% of U.S. motor vehicle occupants killed in rural road crashes during the five-year period were unrestrained. By comparison, in 2020, 51% of all road fatalities were unbelted.
Impaired driving is another critical problem. For example, 43% of alcohol-related motor vehicle fatalities occurred on a rural road. Drug-impaired drivers killed 2,644 people on rural roads in 2020. However, as the report notes, that figure is likely an undercount, as nearly twice as many crash deaths — 5,335 — have no information about potential drug involvement.
While speeding is a major hazard everywhere, in rural areas it was a factor in 27% of roadway deaths. Overall, nearly half (46%) of fatalities in crashes that involved speeding occurred on rural roads. Additionally, states with high maximum speed limits tend to have higher per capita rates of fatalities on rural roads than states with lower maximum speed limits.
Finally, distracted driving appears to be especially present on rural roads. Of all fatalities that involved distraction, 46% occurred on rural roads — and yet the rural population comprises less than one-fifth of the country. Over the five-year period studied in the report, 7,699 people were killed in rural road crashes that involved distracted driving.