Rural Road Safety Week: Taking Action to Improve Rural Road Safety For Older Adults
“Nearly half (46%) of fatalities in crashes that involved speeding occurred on rural roads,” said the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) in its 2022 report on rural roads.
July 17-21 2023, is Rural Road Safety Awareness Week (RRSAW). This initiative, created by the National Center for Rural Road Safety, raises awareness of the dangers on rural roadways. This year’s RRSAW theme is “What’s Speed Got to Do with It?”
“Older adults comprise 12 percent of the population living in urban settings and 16 percent in rural settings,” according to Payyanadan, et al in their content analysis “Challenges for Older Drivers in Urban, Suburban, and Rural Settings.” Older road user safety and rural road user safety are intertwined and require countermeasures, actions designed to ensure safety, that work for all drivers.
Older Drivers and Speeding
In 2020, 11 percent of speeding drivers involved in fatal crashes were aged 75 and older.3 If a vehicle crash involving high speed occurs, older road users are more likely to have to deal with issues of increased fragility and frailty than younger road users. Fragility relates to how likely it is that a person will be injured if they are in a crash, while frailty relates to how well that person can recover once injured.4 According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, health care is harder to access in Rural America. In the event of a crash, older road users in a rural area may not have quick access to a health care facility, making a vehicle crash involving speed even more dangerous.
There are several actions rural communities can take to reduce speeding and increase traffic safety. Older road users will benefit from the increased safety awareness raised during Rural Road Safety Awareness Week. “Improving safety for all rural road users is a shared responsibility,” said Jaime Sullivan, director of the National Center for Rural Road Safety. “For RRSAW 2023, our social media-based campaign is aimed at not only providing local practitioners with materials for educating the public about safe speeds, but also providing practitioners with resources for identifying and deploying speed management strategies.”
Rural Speed Challenges
Rural roads present unique safety challenges. “Rural Road Safety Awareness Week is a time to focus on rural-specific problems and solutions,” said Kevin Elliott, Marketing Manager for the National Center for Rural Road Safety. “Many or most of their roads are unpaved, practitioners and law enforcement have more lane miles to monitor, there are greater speed differentials between vehicles like cars and agriculture equipment or horse and buggy. We have many resources on our website and in our trainings to help rural practitioners tackle these rural-specific challenges.”
Countermeasures for Rural Roads
Countermeasures that Work: A Highways Safety Countermeasure Guide for State Highway Safety Offices, released by NHTSA in 2020, lays out common traffic safety topics and scientifically tested countermeasures to encourage safety. While countermeasures for rural roads include more than speeding, speeding countermeasures are highlighted here.
Countermeasures for reducing rural road speeding lean on law enforcement professionals enforcing speed limits on rural roads, which may present other challenges in rural areas, including limited personnel.1
A self-enforcing road may help drivers choose appropriate speeds. The self-enforcing road has characteristics that inform drivers how to select travel speeds. For example, a road with a speed limit of 35 mph should look different and have different characteristics than a 55-mph road. This may include narrow lanes and no shoulder.1
“The Federal Highway Administration also has a collection of Proven Safety Countermeasures, many of which are appropriate for rural roadways,” Elliott said.
Incorporating Speed into Your Local Road Safety Plan
“Speeding is a traffic safety problem that is national in scope but requires local decision-making and action to be managed effectively. Local communities are in the best position to make judgments in balancing risk against mobility.”2 In addition to the countermeasures described above, some ways to incorporate speed management for rural roads include law enforcement and engineering measures that encourage drivers to go the speed limit.
Some of these measures may include speed feedback signs; advisory speeds for roadway conditions like curves; high-visibility enforcement of speed laws; variable speed limits to reduce speeds for changing circumstances like inclement weather, work zones, or school zones; roundabouts; and/or traffic calming techniques for when a high speed rural road becomes a main street with multiple road user types.
“If your local data shows that speeding is a risk factor in your area, then incorporating speed as an emphasis area in your local road safety plan can help to shine a spotlight on it,” said Sullivan. “Once identified as an emphasis area, multidisciplinary strategies and action items such as engineering-related countermeasures, educational and outreach activities, and enforcement activities are then documented in the plan to be implemented.“
Building a Culture of Safe Speeds
In 2020, there were 11,258 fatalities in crashes where at least one driver was speeding, 29 percent of total traffic fatalities that year, according to NHTSA. “Ultimately, we want to change the entire national culture around speeding,” Elliott said. “If we as a society change our norms, we are much more likely to see lasting change at scale and drive fatalities and serious injuries to zero on our rural roads. Our society changed cultural expectations around smoking, teen pregnancy, and other persistent social challenges. We can do it with speeding.”
For more information please visit:
ChORUS to learn about strategies to improve traffic safety for older drivers.
National Center for Rural Road Safety for strategies to improve road safety in rural areas.