Driving on Rural Roads
Dangers of Driving on Rural Roads

The Understated Dangers of Driving On Rural Roads: Minimizing Driving Risks

Updated Dec. 11, 2020

Most drivers would agree that driving on rural roads is a less stressful experience than driving in a crowded city. Though, “less stressful” does not necessarily equate to “less dangerous”. Statistics compiled by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) suggest quite the opposite in fact!

Despite the slow pace of life, low traffic volume and quiet countryside which typifies most rural communities in America, drivers are more likely to be involved in a fatal accident on a rural road than they are anywhere else.

In 2016, the NHTSA recorded 37,461 traffic deaths overall. Of these fatalities:

  • 18,590 (50 percent) occurred in rural areas
  • 17,656 (47 percent) occurred in urban areas
  • 1,215 (3 percent) occurred in unknown areas

A three-percent difference in fatalities between rural and urban areas might not seem like cause enough to label rural roads “more dangerous”, but the picture changes when we consider that just 19 percent of Americans live in rural areas (according to the 2016 census).

You could argue that the number of people living rurally has little bearing on the number who drive rurally. Unfortunately, that figure also supports the idea that rural roads are deadlier than city roads. Rural areas accounted for 50 percent of all traffic fatalities in 2016, despite accounting for just 30 percent of all vehicle-miles traveled that year.

As a new motorist, staying safe on rural roads depends on understanding the risks you are exposed to. We will explore those risks and teach you how to manage them in this module.

Rural driving dangers

Rural collisions are often fatal, primarily because the quiet roads and open spaces give drivers a false sense of safety. In a rural area, motorists are more likely to relax their attention on the road and exceed the speed limit. This phenomenon – coupled with roads that are typically narrow and do not separate opposing traffic with a central barrier – make lethal, head-on collisions more likely.

Unfortunately, these are not the only factors that make rural driving high-risk. Drivers are more likely to be involved in a fatal collision on a rural road because:

  • There are fewer signs, signals and traffic control devices.
  • Roadways are often poorly lit.
  • Many roadways are not properly paved.
  • Statistics show that rural drivers and passengers are less likely to wear a seat belt.
  • Injured persons are less likely to survive as it takes responders longer to reach them and hospitals are farther away.
  • There are more unskilled drivers on the road, thanks largely to insufficient public transport.
  • Farm vehicles, farm animals and wild animals are more likely to appear on rural roads.

The number of hazards you will encounter on rural roads is no greater than on any other type of road. The problem is that you are less likely to see these hazards in time to avoid them if you allow the monotony of rural driving to make you complacent and inattentive. When driving rurally, minimize distractions, keep scanning the road ahead for potential problems and look out for situations in which you must yield to other drivers. Remember to keep a close eye on your speed and stay well within legal limits.

The danger of “velocitation”

On open, monotonous stretches of road it becomes increasingly difficult to accurately judge how fast you are traveling. Velocitation is a state which occurs when a driver believes they are moving slower than they truly are. The only way to avoid this dangerous situation is to check your speedometer regularly. You should also aim to drive at least five mph below the actual speed limit so that you will not exceed it, should you accidentally increase speed over time.

Hidden farm driveways and side roads

When driving rurally, most motorists do not expect to encounter cross-traffic as frequently as they would on other roads. It is true that you will come up against fewer intersections on a rural highway than on a city road, however, any junctions you do encounter rurally will be substantially harder to spot. Farm driveways and small side roads that connect to the highway you are driving on may be obscured by hedges, trees or dips in the road.

Even when an open environment allows you to spot road entrances from a great distance, remember that motorists preparing to enter or exit that roadway may be hidden from view. Always check the road as far ahead as possible for places where other vehicles may suddenly appear. If your view is limited, cut back your speed to shorten your stopping distance.

Farm and livestock crossing areas

Farm animals and slow-moving farm vehicles like tractors could appear on the roadway at any time when farmland is nearby. Always assume you may encounter such obstacles and keep your speed to a minimum – remember that animals are easily startled by fast-moving vehicles. Should you come across a herd of animals crossing the road, stop at a safe distance and do not proceed until they have completely cleared the highway.

Wildlife crossing areas

You are far more likely to encounter wildlife on the roadway rurally than you are in urban areas. The chances are even greater where yellow animal crossing signs are present. Keep an eye out for these signs and reduce your speed in animal crossing areas. This is particularly important in the early morning, early evening and during the night, when visibility is low, and animals are more likely to be active.

If a wild animal appears in front of your vehicle, do not slam on the brakes or swerve out of your lane. Slow down by removing your foot from the gas pedal and braking lightly, if necessary. Sound your horn to scare the animal off the roadway. If you must steer to minimize the severity of the collision, do so in a controlled manner while being mindful of other road users.

Slow-moving vehicles and inconsistent traffic flow

One of the great dangers of rural driving is that traffic flow is incredibly inconsistent. You could move through several miles of countryside traveling at 50 mph and then suddenly encounter a slow-moving vehicle impeding the flow of traffic. When driving on rural roads, motorists must always be prepared for these unexpected changes.

At any point, you may encounter slow-moving vehicles such as buses, tractors, heavy trucks, horse-drawn vehicles or ATVs (All Terrain Vehicles). Adjust your speed to maintain a safe stopping distance if hills or curves limit your view of the road ahead. Only pass a slow-moving vehicle when you are certain it is safe to do so, as their operators may be unlicensed and/or unable to hear your vehicle approaching. Many collisions involving tractors and passenger vehicles occur when the tractor operator slows down to make a left turn and the motorist assumes that they are slowing to let them pass. Keep this in mind.

Roadside communities and gas stations

How can rural communities and stores pose a danger to drivers? Quite simply because they will detract your attention from the road. When restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores, local community events and other sights break up the monotony of a rural highway, it is easy to become distracted and miss upcoming hazards.

Remember to reduce your speed while driving through rural, roadside communities and be on the lookout for other vehicles pulling onto the road. Exercise more caution at night, as local drivers may not take care to switch their lights on right away when re-entering the road from a gas station or roadside diner.

Changes in roadway width

Rural roadways can narrow quite suddenly. Scan ahead for changes in roadway width and look out for narrowed stretches where you may need to yield the right-of-way to other motorists. Slow down when approaching a single-lane bridge or narrow lane, to avoid colliding with vehicles traveling in the opposite direction.

Unmarked or soft shoulder

Road shoulders allow motorists room to make evasive maneuvers when the unexpected happens. Keep in mind that you may not have this escape route when driving on a rural road, as there may be no shoulder present. When there are shoulders, they may be unmarked or surfaced with a material that offers little traction. Be wary when using graveled shoulders and other types of “soft shoulder” as your vehicle is more likely to skid.

Poor road surfaces

Many rural roads are not compatible with high-speed driving. You may encounter roads paved with gravel, crushed stone, tar, concrete and other materials that offer limited traction. Very remote “dirt roads” are not surfaced at all. Some of these materials offer more traction than others, so you must be prepared for changes in your vehicle’s grip on the road as the surface of the roadway alters.

Rough surfaces and roads with potholes must be driven on at low speeds. This type of roadway will make your vehicle bounce, which could cause damage or lead you to lose control. Here are some other issues you may encounter on poorly surfaced rural roads:

  1. 1

    Potholes on rural roads are frequently patched-up with fresh tar.
    Driving through such areas at speed could damage your vehicle, so proceed with caution.

  2. 2

    Some rural roads may be slick with mud or dirt deposited by trucks and farm machinery.
    Reduce speed in these areas, as your vehicle will be more susceptible to skidding.

  3. 3

    Sand or gravel may be spread on the roadway to improve traction in icy conditions.
    When the ice or snow has melted, the leftover sand can worsen traction.

  4. 4

    You may encounter deep potholes.
    Brake to reduce speed before you enter a pothole, releasing the brake as you cross it to maintain control.

Adverse weather conditions

Poor weather conditions make rural driving substantially more dangerous, especially in mountain areas where conditions can worsen rapidly. Ideally, you should avoid traveling in snowy, icy, foggy or stormy weather. If you are stranded on a rural highway in adverse weather conditions, it may take a long time for assistance to reach you.

If bad weather leads to severely reduced visibility, it is best to pull over and resume your journey when conditions improve. Remember to make sure your vehicle is completely off the roadway and your hazard lights are active to warn other motorists of your presence.

Mitigating rural driving risks

The risks you may encounter when driving on rural highways are significant. Individually, the dangers are relatively easy to workaround. Though mitigating rural driving risks and staying safe on our country’s most remote roadways can be a challenge when multiple dangers are present – which is frequently.

You may have to deal with narrow, poorly surfaced roads, slow-moving vehicles, unexpected junctions and adverse weather - all at the same time! Find out how to stay safe in dangerous rural driving conditions in the "Approaches to Rural Driving" module.

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Driving Through Curves

You do not need to be a rocket scientist to navigate curves in the road safely, though you will need to understand the forces acting on your vehicle and learn how to maintain control. When driving through any curve in the road, the circular pathway of your vehicle will create a centrifugal force which pulls it toward the outside edge of the curve. Always be on the lookout for curves in the road ahead of you and make any necessary speed and position changes as soon as possible.

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Dealing with Congested Traffic

City traffic is at its worst during early morning and late afternoon rush hours. Maintaining a safe space around your vehicle is practically impossible during these high-congestion periods. In this situation, you can expect traffic to be moving extremely slowly and stopping often. Vigilance is the key to preventing gridlock.

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Driving Through Construction Zones

While driving in the city, you may encounter construction zones or detours marked out with warning signs and signaling devices. These are in place to guide road users and pedestrians safely around the work zone. Always reduce your speed when approaching a construction or maintenance area on the road, as there may be workers moving around on foot.

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Driving in Residential Neighborhoods

Motorists are generally exposed to far less danger when driving in residential neighborhoods, than they are when driving in a city or on a major highway. Nevertheless, the risk of being involved in an accident or collision in a residential neighborhood is high – particularly when traveling close to home.

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Special Use Lanes

One of the first things you must learn when driving in residential, suburban and urban neighborhoods is that not all traffic lanes are designed to be used in the same way. To increase public safety and minimize congestion, “special use” lanes and road features, such as one-way streets, center left turn lanes, reversible lanes and roundabouts are present in some areas.

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Driving on Rural Roads

Driving on rural roadways can be every bit as dangerous as driving on high-speed freeways or crowded city roads. The dangers themselves are fewer on rural roads, though the overall risk is greater. Limited visibility, lack of road signs, careless driving and changeable roadways conditions make rural traffic fatalities tragically common.