This article was produced by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.
Sarah Risser never imagined that a drive to go cross-country skiing on a cold January morning in 2019 would change her life forever.
Her 18-year-old son, Henry Zietlow, had returned home to Minnesota for winter break after his first semester at college. Zietlow was behind the wheel of their Subaru Forrester, driving his mom on a rural, two-lane Wisconsin road.
Suddenly, a pickup truck driver towing a flatbed trailer in the opposite direction lost control, crossed the center line, and hit their car head-on. The Subaru spun into a ditch, striking a tree. Zietlow, who was trapped in the car, suffered severe head trauma. He died at the scene.
“It’s been absolutely devastating to our family. We were in a state of shock for most of the first year,” said Risser, 54, of Minneapolis. “We’re going to grieve for the rest of our lives.”
Zietlow, a violinist, and member of the varsity rowing team at Bowdoin College in Maine, was one of more than 16,000 people who died in a crash on a U.S. rural road in 2019. His mother—and many transportation experts and highway safety advocates—say those roads need to be made safer. Some federal and state officials are taking note.
The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill the U.S. Senate passed last week touched on the problem. It would require a study of the issue and launch a new rural road grant program that includes $300 million for high-risk rural road safety programs. And safety analysis should be part of the many individual projects funded by the package, advocates say.
States are tackling some work independently. In Illinois, after pressure from a lawmaker, the state’s transportation agency agreed to survey and prioritize the most dangerous rural intersections. Kansas, Minnesota, and South Carolina are spending significant amounts to upgrade safety infrastructure or come up with ways to prevent rural crashes.
Relatively simple engineering changes, such as rumble strips, median barriers, pavement markings, better lighting, and wider shoulders could make a big difference in rural road safety, transportation experts and advocates say.
“We can educate and enforce until the cows come home. That’s only going to go so far if the underlying systems aren’t designed with safety in mind,” said Leah Shahum, director of Vision Zero Network, an Oakland, California-based national advocacy group that promotes the goal of zero traffic deaths or severe injuries for road users.
“Every small or mid-sized rural community doesn’t need to recreate the wheel,” Shahum said. “We need more leadership from the state and federal level to say, ‘Here are the best practices for safety and here’s funding to implement them.’”
But Shahum said federal, state, and local governments aren’t using road funding “in a safety-first way.”
“Too often we’ve seen transportation money be this political grab bag and it’s not focused on the safety priorities,” she said. “There should be standards and accountability for improving safety with that funding. That’s not the case now.”
The Senate package’s rural road safety language was based on a bill filed in May by U.S. Senators Mark Kelly, an Arizona Democrat, and Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, that would have provided $750 million for safety projects on high-risk rural roads.
In the House, lawmakers filed a similar bipartisan bill in April that would create a $600 million competitive grant program that local governments could apply for to make infrastructure safety improvements on rural roads.
Crashes in urban areas often get more attention, and they increasingly involve pedestrians and bicyclists. But nearly half of the more than 36,000 traffic fatalities in the United States each year occur on rural roads, even though only about a fifth of the population lives in rural areas, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In 2019, the fatality rate on rural roads was nearly twice as high as on urban ones, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research group funded by auto insurance companies.
Transportation experts say a combination of higher speeds, narrow shoulders, lack of lighting, and lots of curves contribute to the problem. So does the fact that emergency responders might be some distance away and can take longer to arrive at the scene and transport injured drivers and passengers to hospitals.
In 2018, 58% of drivers in rural areas died on the way to hospitals compared with 41% in urban areas, according to the federal highway safety agency.
Hillary Isebrands, a senior safety engineer at the Federal Highway Administration, said her agency takes a proactive approach to safety when working with state transportation departments by using data to figure out in advance of construction and maintenance what kinds of changes they can make to prevent serious crashes. The idea is to anticipate human errors by road users, then redesign or add safety features to reduce or eliminate risks that result in serious traffic injuries or deaths.
The agency also provides technical assistance to local agencies facing rural road safety challenges.
“As engineers, we’re not going to solve these issues by ourselves. Law enforcement isn’t either. And it’s the same for EMS,” she said. “We can’t do it by ourselves, but if we all come together, and combine it with education, we may be able to get to zero [deaths].”
State legislatures typically don’t deal directly with rural road safety issues. They leave that to state and local transportation officials, who make decisions about infrastructure and engineering changes. But sometimes, legislators do try to step in.
In Illinois, Republican state Senator Chapin Rose filed a bill in February that would require the state Department of Transportation to conduct a study identifying rural intersections that have significant safety concerns. The department would have to seek input from county officials and make recommendations for policy changes.
“I’m just sick and tired of people getting killed at rural intersections that everybody knows have been an issue in the past,” Rose said in an interview with Stateline. “You can’t signalize every rural intersection. Motorists don’t want that anyway. But there are that one or two in every county that are just an accident waiting to happen.”
Rose, who represents 10 counties in east-central Illinois, many of which are rural, said he has been pushing for such a study for years. He ended up tabling this year’s bill after the state transportation agency agreed to survey all the local road and county highway officials as well as sheriffs in Illinois and develop a list of the most dangerous rural intersections.
“That way we can come back to the General Assembly and figure out how to get additional funds to make changes, whether it’s for signaling, better alignment, whatever,” Rose said. “A lot of these rural areas don’t have the money to do a complete redesign.”
Rose said at one time he was the only Illinois state legislator pushing this issue. But now, he said he has most of the downstate lawmakers from both parties on board. They’re from predominantly rural areas.
“I’m no Pollyanna. We’re not going to fix everything overnight,” he said. “And these changes don’t all have to be super expensive. But we need to do something. Do anything.”
Some state transportation departments have made rural road safety a top priority.
South Carolina, for example, is investing $124 million over 10 years to make rural roads safer by installing rumble strips, wider pavement markings, brighter signs, high-friction surface treatments, guardrails, and other improvements.
In Minnesota, the state transportation department has installed technology at dozens of rural intersections to give motorists real-time warnings about traffic conditions.
In Kansas, where about 90% of the roads are rural and most are owned by counties, state Department of Transportation officials decided to change the way they viewed crash data and how and where to make changes.
Instead of planning safety improvements based on single crashes, they moved to a more systemic approach, said Tod Salfrank, an assistant bureau chief at the agency. They began looking at locations that had multiple crashes, what type of road it was and how to address the risk factors they had in common. Then they identified other locations with similar features.
“You want to look for risk factors on the roadways and address the ones with the highest,” Salfrank said.
Officials discovered that roadway departures—anything that causes drivers to unintentionally leave their lane—were the biggest contributor to fatal or serious crashes, he said.
The agency has been setting aside about $4 million a year in federal funds for its high-risk rural roads program. Some of that is being used to pay a consultant $1 million a year over five years to help all 105 counties develop safety plans for their rural roads.
The plans will recommend engineering changes that local governments can make to prevent crashes, such as flattening slopes, widening shoulders, installing pavement markings and rumble strips and removing trees that may be too close to the road. The state is paying for 90% with federal dollars; local governments are picking up the rest.
When the program started in 2016, Kansas was averaging 207 severe crashes a year on rural roads, Salfrank said. That number dropped to 189 as of 2018, the latest year data is available.
Nine out of 10 rural traffic fatalities occur on two-lane roads, according to a May 2020 report by TRIP, a national nonprofit transportation research center.
The combination of rumble strips and wider shoulders can help prevent some of the worst crashes, said Robert Wunderlich, director of the Center for Transportation Safety at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
“Rumble strips alert you that you’ve made an error,” he said. “The shoulder gives you a place to recover.”
Transportation engineers also should examine steep slopes to prevent vehicles from overturning, Wunderlich added.
Safety needs to be built into every road project, whether it’s for maintenance or road construction, Wunderlich said.
“This federal infrastructure bill is going to put a lot of money in the states to construct and rebuild infrastructure and I think robust safety analysis needs to be a key part of it,” he said. “It’s not rocket science. I think it would make a huge difference.”
Risser, whose son was killed in the Wisconsin crash, said engineering changes such as rumble strips or a median might have prevented the crash.
“It’s extremely important that people who are in positions of authority and leadership start addressing this issue,” Risser said. “That’s really lacking right now in this country.”