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Rural roads relaxing - and deadly

GRAND FORKS -- Where's your "white knuckle" zone?

Do you get nervous just thinking about driving to Minneapolis (or "metro" Fargo-Moorhead) and putting yourself at the mercy of urban traffic, but think nothing of zipping around rural North Dakota or Minnesota?

The number crunchers at the U.S. Department of Transportation urge you to consider this: Rural drivers are more likely to be killed on the road than drivers in urban or suburban areas.

Citing statistics from 2010, the department found that just 19 percent of Americans lived in rural areas, while 55 percent of traffic fatalities occurred in those areas.

Why? Rural roads may lack safety features that are becoming more common on urban freeways, rural people are less inclined to use seat belts, and drunk driving appears to be a bigger problem in wide-open spaces, according to federal statistics. Also, drivers in rural areas are more likely to speed, especially when they don't see many other drivers -- or patrol cars.

"I live in rural Minnesota and I grew up here, and I get that," said Sgt. Jesse Grabow of the Minnesota State Patrol's Thief River Falls district.

"When I speak at schools or other places, I let people know that just because they live out in rural Minnesota they're not invincible," he said. "I don't want them to have this mentality that all the bad crashes happen down in the Twin Cities.

"I tell them that if you're among the people who are speeding, not buckling up, or drinking and driving, it's going to catch up to you. I see it out there all the time."

Illusion of safety

According to Stateline, a news website, a safety expert with the American Automobile Association reports that the numbers of fatalities also are affected by the fact that "there are fewer people to call for help after an accident, and help is likely to be farther away." Also, the closest hospital may not be staffed or equipped to handle severe trauma.

The Transportation Department report ranked North Dakota fourth among states with the highest proportion of traffic deaths in rural areas -- 89 percent. Maine, the most rural state in terms of population, was first at 96 percent, followed by Montana at 94 percent and South Dakota at 91 percent.

Minnesota was 18th with 70 percent. The national average was 55 percent.

States with larger urban populations tended to have higher urban traffic deaths. Massachusetts, with the highest proportion of such deaths, had 88 percent.

An illusion of greater safety on rural roads may also have an impact.

In a 2010 national survey, a University of Minnesota research center found that more Americans feel safer and more relaxed on rural highways than on urban freeways -- yet the fatal accident rate per miles driven is higher in rural areas.

Many drivers "don't understand the greater risk they face on rural highways," according to the report.

Nearly 7-in-10 Americans said they felt safe on urban freeways, but almost 8-in- 10 felt safe on two-lane highways in rural areas. Thirty-eight percent said they felt relaxed on rural highways, twice the proportion who said they feel relaxed on urban freeways.

Among drivers who identified themselves as rural residents, 69 percent said they felt relaxed on rural highways but only 13 percent felt relaxed on urban freeways.

"This feeling of relaxation and safety seems to lead to a bit more risk taking on the more dangerous rural highways," according to the research center report. "For instance, Americans are more likely to feel safe eating, using a cell phone, and drinking and driving on rural highways than they are on urban freeways.

"This is particularly true of rural residents. For instance, among rural residents, 44 percent said they feel safe using a cell phone on a rural highway versus 14 percent who feel safe using a cell phone on an urban freeway."

Survey respondents were asked why they feel safer driving on rural highways. About half said there were simply fewer things to fret about, including less traffic.

Just under a third said they know the area and felt comfortable driving there.