Rural Roads Deteriorating and Deadly, TRIP Says, Highlighting Need for More Investment

AASHTO Journal, 22 May 2015

A new report on rural road conditions, by the national research group TRIP, said more than half the nation’s major rural roads are rated no better than mediocre or fair, while 15 percent are judged as poor. And, TRIP warned, those conditions are getting worse.

Because much of the U.S. energy boom in recent years has been in rural areas – both for carbon-based oil and gas production and for alternative energy development of wind or solar farms – roads that were not designed for high-impact truck traffic are seeing a surge in truck volumes, TRIP said.


Those are roads that already have fatality rates many times higher than for non-rural roads, but which are also crucial to both the agricultural economy and the tourist sector as travelers seek out-of-the-way parks and historical sites. Here are the detailed findings.

“The nation’s rural transportation system is in need of improvements to address deficient roads and bridges, high crash rates, and inadequate connectivity and capacity,” TRIP said.

TRIP issued its report May 19, the same day the House voted to extend the Highway Trust Fund’s program authority for two more months through July 31 but without any additional funding.

“The safety and quality of life in America’s small communities and rural areas and the health of the nation’s economy ride on our rural transportation system,” said Will Wilkins, executive director of TRIP. “The nation’s rural roads provide crucial links from farm to market, move manufactured and energy products, and provide access to countless tourism, social and recreational destinations.”

But, Wilkins said, “with long-term federal transportation legislation stuck in political gridlock in Washington, economic growth in America’s rural communities could be threatened.”

Citing U.S. Census data, TRIP said 19 percent of the U.S. population in 2014 lived in rural areas – or about 61 million people. That rural population is aging, the report said, and more heavily dependent on roadway travel than people in more urban areas.

But with a much smaller part of the overall population, rural areas see much higher roadway crash and fatality rates.

“In 2013, non-Interstate rural roads had a traffic fatality rate of 2.20 deaths for every 100 million vehicle miles of travel,” TRIP said, “compared to a fatality rate on all other roads of 0.75 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles of travel.” Crashes on rural, non-interstate routes killed 15,601 people that year, or 48 percent of the nation’s total of 32,719 traffic deaths.

TRIP said rural roads are more likely than those in urban areas to have “roadway features that reduce safety, including narrow lanes, limited shoulders, sharp curves, exposed hazards, pavement drop-offs, steep slopes and limited clear zones along roadsides.”

Many of them are two-lane routes, with construction over a period of years that TRIP said often left them with “inconsistent design features for such things as lane widths, curves, shoulders and clearance zones along roadsides.”

The report offered a number of improvements that can reduce the risk of accident or the severity of rural road crashes, and said the investments range from low-cost signage, lighting and skid-reduction upgrades to high-cost options like rebuilding and aligning roads to reduce curves and add passing lanes.

TRIP’s Wilkins said the investments would pay off on several levels: “Funding the modernization of our rural transportation system will create jobs and help ensure long-term economic development and quality of life in rural America.”

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