WASHINGTON – Rural counties accounted for 24 percent of the state population but 36 percent of the fatal crashes over the better part of a decade, an anomaly that experts blame largely on the design of country roads.
“Rural roads, in general, are more dangerous than well-engineered roads,” said Tim Hurd, a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration spokesman, who added that the disproportionate number of fatal rural accidents is “typical.”
Capital News Service compared NHTSA data on fatal accidents between 1994 and 2002 — a period that saw 5,175 deadly crashes in the state — with population numbers for the same period.
The analysis showed that 3,312, or 64 percent, of the accidents occurred in the seven largest jurisdictions in the state: Baltimore City and Montgomery, Prince George’s, Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard and Harford counties. But those seven accounted for an average of 76 percent of the total state population over the period.
Even though more fatal crashes happened in the “big seven” counties, experts agree that the risk of an accident in rural roads is higher.
“In rural areas there are fewer crashes but a much higher proportion of serious injuries or fatal crashes,” said Gerald Donaldson, senior research director for the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
Donaldson cited several risk factors associated with driving in rural areas, in addition to the fact that the roads themselves are not as safe. He said those roads are much less congested, which allows for people to drive at higher speeds.
Hurd said that the way rural roads are laid out — two-lane, narrow and windy, and often poorly lit at night — enhances the risk of getting into an accident.
These risks are often compounded by a lack of safety measures such as guardrails that would prevent vehicles from hitting trees or other objects on the side of the road or from going down a ditch, said Tom Hicks, director of the Maryland Safety Highway Administration’s Office of Traffic Safety.
“We encourage local governments to correct these situations,” Hicks said, noting that the standards set in several rural areas are “somewhat less stringent” than on major federal highways.
Another factor is emergency response, which can be slower in rural counties.
“In rural areas, if it’s a single-vehicle crash, the person may not be discovered for a while,” said Beth Baker, regional administrator for the NHTSA.
“It’s important for a seriously injured person to get to a trauma center” as quickly as possible, Baker said. But since “trauma centers tend to be located in highly populated areas,” the chances of responding within the critical hour after a serious accident are lower, she said.
Law enforcement officials said there are a variety of reasons contributing to fatal crashes, but most of these accidents happen because of driver inattention.
“Each of the crashes has had different types of circumstances,” said Maryland State Police Capt. Scott Yinger, of the Carroll County barrack. He said there have been 22 fatal crashes in the county this year, three more than in all of 2002.
Yinger mentioned undivided highways and poor shoulders as risk factors.
But some police said comparing rural to urban accidents is meaningless, since the average small county has very few driving deaths in a year.
“Any time you have an accident it’s a problem,” said Capt. George Ball of the Talbot County Sheriff’s Office. But “we have so few anyway.”
Sgt. Thornnie Rouse, a spokesman for the Maryland State Police, said speed on rural roads may be a factor, and his agency responds accordingly. But he said the best measure against an accident is driver attention and discretion.
“You can’t drive at 55 in fog,” he said. “You need to slow down and adjust your speed.”