Smarter (and Safer) Roads for Rural America

Photo Credit: Josh Seidemann

By Josh Seidemann, Vice President of Policy, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association

When I think about driving in rural America, my mind goes to twisting one-lane byways and ribbons of asphalt stretching to the horizon. Unfortunately, I also think about higher accident and fatality rates. Smart transportation, however, can reverse these trends.

While only 20% of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that while nearly half (47%) of U.S. traffic fatalities occur on rural roads. There are several reasons for these outcomes. Rural spaces include narrow roads with limited shoulders; roads designed for slower speeds and less traffic; roads shared by farm equipment or school buses traveling long rural routes. Distance also affects fatality rates. In rural areas, it can take longer for first responders to arrive, and longer to transport accident victims to a medical facility.

Smart transportation is often sold as a solution to congestion, a condition that afflicts urban areas more than rural. Smart transportation has also been promoted as partner to public transportation: in New York City, smart buses signal traffic lights to flip to or stay green to improve on-time performance. But crowded city streets and lined-up buses are not common features in rural areas. Nevertheless, smart transportation has a rural role, as well.

The University of Iowa and the Iowa Department of Administration submitted a grant application to the U.S. Department of Transportation to support a Rural Enhanced Communication of Hazards (REACH) pilot. The proposal aims to equip specialty vehicles such as farm equipment, school buses and emergency vehicles with Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) devices that would send alerts to other drivers. In addition to reducing collisions with slower-moving or stationary vehicles, these alerts could also reduce secondary crashes that occur when drivers are unable to maneuver safely around first responders. The proposal also focuses on patient outcomes with TraumaHawk, a University of Iowa-developed app that assists medical personnel predict injuries by noting points of impact, vehicle intrusions or structural compromise.

And, for cities big and small, intracity driving also benefits from smart technology. Waycare uses AI to predict traffic hazards and has trialed with the Nevada Highway Patrol and in Columbus, Ohio. The system blends data from connected vehicles, weather reports and roadwork orders to predict hazardous conditions. In one trial, crashes decreased by 17%. Another firm, NEXAR, relies on a community of dashcams to assess and then warn users of potential hazards. These are applications that are as useful in rural areas as in urban.

A final note: statistics on rural traffic accidents often focus on impairment and seatbelt usage – or lack thereof. Although seatbelt use and alcohol impairment have been cited as causes for rural traffic fatalities, seatbelt use is only slightly lower in rural than urban areas (88.7% vs 90.2%), and the proportion of alcohol-impaired fatalities in rural areas decreased over the decade between 2008-2017; in fact, in 2017 the proportion of alcohol-impaired fatalities dipped lower in rural than urban areas (29% vs 30%).

Apps won’t solve every problem, since human behavior still plays a role. Nevertheless, technology that facilitates accident avoidance and early warning systems should have a noticeable beneficial impact. And that will be a smart outcome.