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Rural Roads — Fall 2009 | Out Here Magazine

Website helps country byways become safer to drive

By Leah Call

Rural living may suggest a safe environment, and it is for the most part — until you get out on the roads.

Besides dangerous hills and curves, blind spots, small or nonexistent shoulders, and unmarked intersections, rural roads have their own unique hazards: livestock on the road, tall crops that block a driver's vision, unmarked intersections, and slow-moving farm machinery, especially during planting and harvest season.

Indeed, 23 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, yet more than half — 56 percent — of traffic fatalities each year occur on rural roads, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Troubled by those numbers, the Center for Excellence in Rural Safety at the University of Minnesota last year launched an initiative to help reduce accidents and fatalities on rural roads.

The initiative includes an interactive website — — that maps out every traffic fatality in the last year, along with basic details.

The website is a visual aid, of sorts, to illustrate that tragedies can, and do, happen along the scenic, winding roads of rural America.

"Part of the purpose of this is to show people that proportionately more fatalities occur on rural roads than urban roads," says Lee Munnich, the center's director. "We want people to be aware of that and know where those crashes occur — and also to drive safely and use behaviors that avoid fatalities."

Munnich expects many will use to investigate the number of fatalities on the roads they drive every day and perhaps change their routes. Others may want to plan the safest drive for an upcoming trip. also provides a county and state's government leaders a solid resource to measure the danger of roads to make necessary changes.

"There are solutions that can be adopted, but the reality is there are an awful lot of rural roads," Munnich says. "The primary issue is better driving behavior and caution."

For example:

  • Rural road design — lower traffic volume, long, isolated stretches of highway, and higher posted speed limits — may create faster driving speeds, a University of Minnesota study says.
  • Nearly one-fourth of rural drivers and passengers likely don't use their seat belt. Notably, seat belt use among pickup drivers is lower than drivers of any other vehicle type.

The mapping tool on the center's website provides easy access to data that Munnich hopes will help communities and counties develop lifesaving strategies.

Safe driving behaviors on rural roads are essentially the same everywhere. Slow down. Don't drink and drive. And buckle up.

The road less traveled does not have to be life threatening. Smart, cautious driving will ensure that you get to your destination safe and sound.

Leah Call is a freelance writer in Westby, WI.