Be Careful When Driving in Rural Oklahoma

SERIES: WHY IS OKLA’S TRAFFIC FATALITY RATE SO HIGH? (PART 5)

In a series of blog posts, I have been exploring the question: Why is the Oklahoma traffic fatality rate almost twice the national average?

The answer is not what you may think. It is not due to a higher rate of drunk driving fatalities. Nor is the explanation a higher rate of speeding fatalities. And it is not because of a higher incidence of motorcycle traffic deaths.

Then why are Oklahoma citizens almost twice as likely to die on the road than the national average of traffic fatalities per person? Here’s the answer or at least a big part of it: Oklahoma’s rural highways and roads.

In four previous blog posts:

• I have discussed Oklahoma traffic deaths that involve drunk driving. About a third of traffic fatalities in our state involve a driver with alcohol content above the legal limit. That’s alarming. However, that percentage correlates almost exactly to the national rate.

• I have discussed traffic fatalities that involved speeding, which also account for about a third of road deaths in our state. Speeding is a serious problem. However, once again, that percentage correlates almost exactly to the national average.

• I have discussed Oklahoma traffic fatalities that involve motorcycles. Motorcycle deaths are a serious issue, accounting for about 12% of all Oklahoma traffic deaths. A motorcyclist in Oklahoma is six times more likely to die on the road than an automobile owner. That’s serious business. However, once again, those statistics match the national stats almost exactly.

As I enumerated in the first post of this series, one in every 5,405 Oklahomans loses one’s life in a traffic accident each year. Nationally, the rate is one in every 9,346 citizens. An Oklahoman is almost twice as likely to die in a traffic fatality than the national average. What makes Oklahoma such a dangerous place to drive?

Rural Roads are More Dangerous

The answer is that rural roads are far more dangerous than urban roads, and Oklahoma is one of our nation’s most rural states.

Here are some numbers. As in my previous blog posts, these stats are drawn from “Traffic Safety Facts Oklahoma: 2008-2012,” a report of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

As the chart below shows, about 70% of traffic fatalities in Oklahoma happen on rural roads and highways. Nationally, the rate of rural fatalities to total fatalities is 57%. That’s a big difference, and points to the primary reason why Oklahomans are more likely to die on the road.

Driving Fatalities in Oklahoma: Urban v Rural

Total

traffic fatalities

in Okla.

Urban

Rural

Pct.: Rural / Total

2008

750

226

523

70%

2009

737

239

498

68%

2010

668

203

465

70%

2011

696

199

497

71%

2012

708

241

467

66%

Does this information surprise you? I know some rural Oklahomans who hate to come to the city; one reason they often mention is the traffic. And it may be true that a driver in the city is more likely to have a fender bender. But traffic accidents that claim lives occur at a much higher rate on rural highways and roads.

Nationally, 19% of U.S. residents live in rural areas, but rural fatalities are 57% of all traffic fatalities. By comparison, in Oklahoma, about 35% of our residents live in rural areas. That’s almost double the national percentage. Given the statistics above, that is all the explanation necessary for why Oklahoma traffic fatalities are also almost double the national rate.

Why Are Oklahoma Rural Roads So Dangerous?

Why are Oklahoma’s rural roads so much more dangerous than city roads? Let’s consider some reasons.

1. More miles driven? You might think that rural residents just do a lot more driving, covering a lot more miles. However, that’s not the case, at least not at the national level. According to the Federal Highway Administration, the number of rural miles driven each year is only about half the number of urban miles driven.

2. Unsafe roads. Clearly, a big part of the problem is that less money is spent maintaining rural roads, so they are more dangerous. TRIP, a nonprofit transportation research group, ranked Oklahoma as having the third most deficient roads and bridges of any state in the country. The report said that 30% of Oklahoma roads are in poor condition.

3. Lack of law enforcement. Many small cash-strapped Oklahoma towns have almost no traffic enforcement. Traffic enforcement in unincorporated areas is often non-existent.

4. Driver misperception that rural roads are safer. According to one survey, drivers on rural roads feel safer, which may mean they are less cautious. The University of Minnesota’s Center for Excellence in Rural Safety found that drivers feel safer on country roads and relax behind the wheel in rural settings. That is be a big mistake.

Here are Oklahoma’s 10 most dangerous counties, based on fatalities per person (according to “Traffic Safety Facts Oklahoma,” link above):

  • 1. Beaver County (county seat: Beaver)
  • 3. Grant County (county seat: Cheyenne)
  • 4. Harper County (county seat: Buffalo)
  • 5. Blaine County (county seat: Watonga)
  • 6. Major County (county seat: Fairview)
  • 7. Dewey County (county seat: Taloga)
  • 8. Craig County (county seat: Vinita)
  • 9. Kiowa County (county seat: Hobart)
  • 10. Love County (county seat: Marietta)

Notice that the list includes none of Oklahoma’s 10 most populated, urbanized counties: Oklahoma County (OKC), Tulsa County (Tulsa), Cleveland County (Norman), Comanche County (Lawton), Canadian County (El Reno), Rogers County (Claremore), Payne County (Stillwater), Wagoner County (Wagoner), Muskogee County (Muskogee) or Creek County (Sapulpa).

Conclusions for Oklahoma Drivers

What conclusions should be drawn from this information? When the topic is traffic safety, most of the attention seems to go to the usual suspects, especially drunk driving and speeding. Those are serious problems. However, when 70% of all traffic fatalities in Oklahoma are occurring in rural areas, a lot of our energy should be devoted to addressing rural traffic safety.

Appropriate measures might include greater public awareness of the danger on rural roads; increased rural enforcement of traffic laws; improving rural roads; and installing more safety measures (e.g., rumble strips) on rural roads.

Did you get into a car accident on a rural road with another driver, sustaining serious injuries? Contact an Oklahoma City car accident attorney at Hasbrook & Hasbrook.