Car accidents are a common occurrence in the United States. There are more than 280 million vehicles in the country and more than 225 million licensed drivers who drive those cars more than 3 trillion miles every year. With those kinds of numbers, accidents are bound to happen.
The question is, are those accidents more likely to occur in rural or urban areas? More specifically, are fatal car accidents more likely to occur in rural or urban areas?
For the sake of context, it is helpful to know that only about 19 percent of the population lives in what is classified as a rural area. And of all the miles driven each year in America, only 30 percent of those miles are driven in rural areas.
However, rural areas account for a disproportionately high percentage of car crashes—at least fatal car crashes.
Fatal Car Crashes: Urban and Rural
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), as recently as 2018 there were 36,560 car accident fatalities. Of those fatalities, 19,498 occurred in urban areas (54 percent) and 16,411 occurred in rural areas (46 percent).
However, before any assessment of those numbers can be made, there are several trends that need to be noted:
- 2018 was only the third year in IIHS’s data set in which urban crashes outpaced rural crashes. In the year 2015, even though the percentage of people living in rural areas was roughly the same, 51 percent of car accident fatalities occurred in rural areas. Before that year, the annual percentage was even higher.
- Both urban and rural car accident fatalities are on a long downward trend. IIHS’s data goes back to 1977. In that period the deadliest year was 1979 when 51,093 people were killed in car accidents. It is also worth mentioning that in 1979 the population of the U.S. was only 225 million compared to 328 million today, meaning a far higher percentage of people relative to the population were dying in car accidents (both urban and rural) years ago.
Rural car accident fatalities still account for a stubbornly high percentage of total car accident fatalities. There are several reasons experts believe this to be so.
Why There are So Many Rural Car Accident Fatalities
With only 19 percent of the U.S. population living in rural areas, one would hope far fewer car accident fatalities would occur outside of the city. However, over the course of the last several decades and longer, that has not proven to be the case.
Several reasons rural car accident fatality numbers are so high is because:
With smaller budgets for roads than their urban counterparts, small towns and county governments don’t always have the funds they need to maintain roads. This can lead to road deterioration like potholes, and it can also make it more difficult to address safety conditions for roads or intersections that are known to be hazardous.
Higher Rate of Drinking and Driving
Drivers in rural areas drink and drive at higher rates than those who live in urban areas. This is because rural areas lack the infrastructure necessary to keep people from drunk driving such as buses, subways, and even reliable ridesharing options.
Drivers in rural areas can also become complacent and operate their vehicle in unsafe ways. This could be because there are fewer law enforcement officers per mile of road meaning drivers think they can get away with things like speeding or texting while driving. It can also be because of the relative lightness of traffic. Because they encounter fewer vehicles, drivers might think they don’t need to wear a seat belt.
High Speed Limits
Rural areas also have a higher percentage of roadways with high speed limits. While these increased speed limits might not increase the likelihood of an accident, they do increase the likelihood of a fatality should an accident occur.
While the overall downward trend of car accident fatalities in both urban and rural areas is welcomed, any enthusiasm will remain tempered until driving in rural areas is markedly safer.