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FHWA Home / Safety / HSIP / HRRR / Manual for Selecting Safety Improvements on High Risk Rural Roads

2. High Risk Rural Roads Overview

High risk rural roads include rural collectors and rural local roads.1 The fatality rate on rural collectors and rural local roads is more than 1.5 times higher than the fatality rate on urban collectors and local roads, as shown in Table 1.2

Table 2. 2010 Rural vs. Urban Collector and Local Road VMT and Fatality Rate Comparison
Rural Urban
VMT Fatalities Fatality Rate** VMT Fatalities Fatality Rate**
357,351 5,169 1.45 451,285 4,056 0.90
VMT = vehicle miles traveled
* In Millions
** Per 100 Million VMT
Example: To obtain the rural fatality rate, 1.45=(5,169*100)/357,351

2.1. High Risk Rural Road Safety

The higher roadway fatality rate on rural roadways is the result of many factors, including the following:

The physical characteristics of the roadways. Many rural roadways on both the State and local systems lack shoulders and clear zones that provide an area of recovery for roadway departures, which is the most prevalent crash type on these roadways.

First responders at the scene of an accident.

Behavioral issues such as higher speeds, reduced seat belt use, and higher rates of impaired driving.3 On rural routes, the ability to drive at a higher speed is not limited by the congestion found in urban areas. Motorists in rural areas are also more likely to drive while under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Rural areas also exhibit lower seat belt use than urban areas by nearly 20 percent.4

Increased Emergency Medical Services response time to incidents. When a severe crash occurs, the time it takes for victims to receive medical care is sometimes a determining factor of the severity of crash-caused injuries. In particular, the "golden hour" (one hour immediately following a roadway crash) is especially important when a crash occurs. Due to the reduced likelihood of passers-by witnessing a crash or its effects in rural areas, the distance emergency medical responders often must travel, and the distance between a crash location and the location of a trauma center, the risk of severe injury and fatality outcomes due to crashes on rural roads is high.

Challenges with limited data, safety expertise, and funding. The challenges of identifying safety improvements are due in part to the limited data available and varying levels of expertise of local agencies. Rural road issues compete for funding against the need for safety and expansion of urban road systems.

Each of these factors present challenges towards solving the fatal and severe crash problem on HRRR.

2.2. Challenges of Applying Treatments to HRRR

Nearly 80 percent of HRRR are found on the locally owned road system.5 As of 2012, there were 89,004 local government units in the United States6 that vary in the size of the engineering staff (including many jurisdictions with no engineering experience) and their expertise in making safety decisions. The financial responsibility for installing safety treatments in many locations is borne by the local agency, and competing community priorities may affect investment for upgrades in roadway safety.

Because local agencies maintain many of the HRRR, their challenges are important and include the following:

Insufficient Funding. Local transportation agencies often lack the funds needed to implement projects. Local agencies are often unfamiliar with the requirements of the State's Federal-aid funding application process, procurement process, and Federal-aid requirements related to construction. In other cases a local agency may not be able to pay for the required matching funds or finance the upfront cost of the project prior to reimbursement. In addition, competition from the large number of local agencies for State or Federal funds can sometimes make it difficult to secure necessary safety funding.

Lack of Technical Expertise. Many local agencies have found it difficult to identify and select safety treatments, as local agencies are often structured differently than the State DOT and may not have a dedicated safety program with funding or dedicated staff. A single local agency staff member with responsibility for roadway safety may also play several roles within the local agency. When safety technical expertise is limited, local agencies may be unable to select the most appropriate solutions.

In addition to the potential solutions listed previously, several State and local agencies have developed innovative contracting strategies to apply funding quickly and efficiently on high risk rural roads. These agencies have taken the following actions:

For additional information related to funding resources and process, see Sections 5.2 and 5.3. More discussion related to identifying HRRR safety issues, even with limited data, is found in Sections 3.1 and 3.2, while assistance in navigating the process for identifying appropriate safety treatments is in Section 6.

Lack of Data. In addition to a lack of funds and technical expertise can be a lack of understanding of which roadway and crash data are important to capture and how to go about the collection and evaluation process.

1 Per the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA:LU) Title 23 Sec. 148 "Highway Safety Improvement Program" and Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) Title 23 Sec. 1112 "Highway Safety Improvement Program." [ Return to note 1. ]

2 U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "Traffic Safety Facts 2010," Rural and Urban Comparison 2010 Data. July 2012. Available at: http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811637.pdf. [ Return to note 2. ]

3 Chandler, B. and R. Anderson, "Implementing the High Risk Rural Roads Program," March 2010. Available at: http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/local_rural/training/fhwasa10012/fhwasa10012.pdf. [ Return to note 3. ]

4 Strine, T.W., L.F. Beck , J. Bolen, C. Okoro, S. Dhingra, and L. Balluz, "Geographic and Sociodemographic Variation in Self-reported Seat Belt Use in the United States," Accident Analysis & Prevention, 2010 July; 42(4): 1066-71. Epub 2010 Jan 4. [ Return to note 4. ]

5 FHWA, Developing Safety Plans: A Manual for Local Rural Road Owners, FHWA-SA-12-017 (Washington, DC: March 2012). Available at: http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/local_rural/training/fhwasa12017/. [ Return to note 5. ]

6 U.S. Census Bureau. "2012 Census of Governments," July 2012. Available at: http://www2.census.gov/govs/cog/2012/formatted_prelim_counts_23jul2012_2.pdf. [ Return to note 6. ]

7 FHWA, Implementing the High Risk Rural Roads Program, "Chapter 4. State Practices for Implementation," FHWA-SA-10-012 (Washington, DC: March 2010). Available at: http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/local_rural/training/fhwasa10012/chap_4.cfm. [ Return to note 7. ]

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