WASHINGTON – Rural residents in Maryland are more than twice as likely to be killed in a car accident as the state’s urban dwellers, according to an analysis of 1997 fatal crash data.
With a rate of almost 20 fatalities per 100,000 residents, the state’s rural counties are far more dangerous for drivers than urban counties, where the rate is just less than 10 deaths per 100,000 people.
Overall, 608 people were killed in car accidents across the state in 1997 — about 12 residents per 100,000 — according to a Capital News Service analysis of U.S. Department of Transportation data.
Some of the state’s rural counties had rates more than three times that number, however.
“These two-lane country roads are not designed to move a lot of traffic,” said Julie Rochman, vice president of communications at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va.
She blames rural areas’ higher death rates on a combination of road design and lack of driver concentration.
Rural roadways are “curvy, there’s no median, there are hills, there are trees on the shoulder. Also, most people don’t perceive they will get a ticket in a rural area as opposed to a city highway, so they will tend to speed and that’s not a good combination,” she said.
Lt. Stuart Murray of the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office agrees. He said that in Worcester County, speed is a factor in “just about every fatal accident.”
Rochman adds that a driver’s mental state can contribute heavily to car accidents.
“You’re expecting congestion, traffic pressures and other driving challenges in urban driving situations,” she said, but in rural areas, many drivers let their guard down and pay less attention.
Maryland’s “Big Seven” jurisdictions — Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties — were designated as the state’s urban areas for purposes of the CNS analysis.
The population of those seven counties numbered 3.9 million residents in 1997, as opposed to the 1.2 million residing in the state’s remaining 17 counties.
The seven urban counties recorded 369 fatalities in 1997 compared to the 239 deaths in rural counties. But because the “Big Seven” were home to more than three-quarters of the state’s population, their death rate per capita was much lower than in the other counties.
Montgomery County, for example, had the third-highest number of highway fatalities in 1997, with 56. But because it is Maryland’s most populous county, with more than 825,000 residents, it had the lowest death rate, averaging fewer than seven fatalities per 100,000 residents.
Alternately, Talbot County had only 14 road deaths in 1997. But with around 33,000 residents, it had Maryland’s highest death rate — 42 people per 100,000 — more than three times the state average.
Rounding out the state’s five deadliest counties were Caroline, Worcester, Queen Anne’s and Garrett counties.
Talbot County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy R. Edward Blessing said the county’s accident reports show two trends: that the heavily wooded area has a “tremendous amount” of car-deer collisions and that after rainstorms, oil build-up on local roads causes dangerous slick conditions.
Blessing also cites speed and road design as problems for rural drivers.
“In Talbot County, Md., we have had a recent accident where two young men were killed on a county road that was narrow and curvy. Speed was a factor in that accident,” he said.
The American Automobile Association agrees that speed and car-deer collisions are rural driving hazards, but said there are other dangers associated with country driving.
“The fact that people usually tend to speed, the lack of lighting, the roadway design, the width of the road, the lack of the shoulder … all these things contribute to dangerous rural driving,” said Mantill Williams, a Mid-Atlantic AAA spokesman.
Because the Maryland State Highway Administration does not compile statistics on highway deaths per capita, the administration had no comment on the analysis. But spokesman David Buck says that rural driving patterns can definitely lead to deadly crashes.
“When you are in a rural county … your average travel speeds are higher … you don’t have rush hour, you don’t have congestion that you have in the urban areas,” said Buck. “With the travel speeds being higher, there is that chance for fatal accidents.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in a study completed in 1996, compared rural and urban automobile accidents across the nation and confirmed much of the bad news for rural drivers.
The NHTSA study found that, in addition to more fatalities, there is a greater chance of severe vehicle damage in accidents in rural areas and of people being ejected from their cars. The crashes are more likely to be head-on collisions, the study reported.
It also said that rural accidents have higher proportions of vehicle rollovers, of collisions with fixed objects and of serious injuries and that it takes emergency medical services longer to reach rural crash scenes than urban accidents.