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A false sense of security

Drivers feel safer on rural roads despite higher death tolls

Although 23% of Americans live in rural areas, rural roads account for a sizeable portion of the nation's roadways, and 57% of highway deaths occur on roads that are considered rural.

What makes these roadways unsafe? Every new technology brings a new distraction to drivers and a new challenge to engineers. But is it possible to design a road that will make people safer drivers? Or is it up to policymakers to use publicly supported penalties to shape driver behavior?

Researchers at the Center for Excellence in Rural Safety (CERS) tackled this question by commissioning a nationwide poll to better understand drivers' knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs concerning their safety on rural roads.

The results of this survey were clear: despite statistics to the contrary, drivers feel safer on rural highways, making them more likely to drink or engage in distracted driving on these roads.

According to Lee Munnich, CERS director, "People seem more comfortable on those roads, even though the facts show that they are more dangerous. They feel more relaxed, and, as a result, they engage in riskier behavior."

Munnich blames much of the misperception of safety on rural roads to the fact that there is less traffic and fewer people, and that drivers tend to be more familiar and comfortable with their surroundings.

"Engineers can do a lot to design safer roads, but they can't create safer drivers," Munnich says. "That's where policy comes in."

In the same survey, CERS asked questions to gauge the support on behalf of American drivers for policies aimed at reducing road fatalities. They found that drivers were overwhelmingly supportive of these measures, including primary seat belt laws, sobriety checkpoints, helmet mandates, graduated drivers' licenses for teenagers, automated speed enforcement, and breathalyzer-based ignition locks.

"The bottom line is, people want to be safe," says Munnich. "Ultimately, they should adopt safe practices of their own. But in the meantime, they want to know that there are penalties for unsafe driving."

The CERS team is taking this message directly to lawmakers, with the hopes that they will see the overwhelming public support for and success of these policies across the nation. Munnich presented the policy results at the National Conference of State Legislatures annual summit this summer and will now move on to surveying lawmakers to find out political and other obstacles to implementing these policies.

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