A lethal fact of life---and death

Rural Transportation: A lethal fact of life—and death

by Les Francis

Mark Twain, once a resident of the Sierra foothills, noted that, “Everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” The same, it can be argued, goes for transportation needs in rural America—and in rural California.

This should be an issue of importance to all residents in our foothill and mountain counties, regardless of political affiliation or ideological persuasion. Let’s start the conversation with some facts (posted in mid-August), from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics of the U.S. Department of Transportation:

  • Slightly less than one fifth (19%) of Americans live in rural areas (as defined by the Bureau of the Census), yet over two thirds of the nation’s highways (or “lane miles”) are in those rural areas;
  • In urban areas there are 1,056 lane miles per 100,000 residents, while the comparable numbers in rural areas are 9,494 lane miles per 100,00 residents;
  • However, while we represent only 19% of the total U.S population, those of us in rural America mange to account for 43% of highway fatalities, a rate that is nearly twice that of urban America;
  • Beyond—but in part related to—safety is the matter of basic transportation infrastructure—bridges that are closed or posted as somehow dangerous– delay travelers—including vehicles carrying needed goods and supplies—double travel time in rural areas compared to urban areas.

A 2017 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), pointed out that, 

 Human behavior, roadway environment, vehicles and medical care after crashes have been identified as four factors that contribute to deaths on rural roads. Overall, there are more crashes attributed to speeding and alcohol and less seatbelt usage among rural drivers. 

More recently (2019), the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety 2019 reported that:

Urban and rural areas have fundamentally different characteristics with regard to density of road networks, land use, and travel patterns. Consequently, the characteristics of fatal motor vehicle crashes differ between rural and urban areas. For example, pedestrian and bicyclist deaths and deaths at intersections are more prevalent in urban areas, whereas a larger proportion of passenger vehicle occupant deaths, large truck occupant deaths and deaths on high-speed roads occur in rural areas. 

In 2014, the non-profit transportation research organization, TRIP, focused on this issue as it related to California. Their finds were staggering—and scandalous. TRIP said that,

California’s rural roads have a traffic fatality rate four times higher than all other roads and highways in the state. These byways also have limited connectivity, inadequate capacity to handle existing and growing levels of traffic and commerce, the inability to accommodate growing freight travel, deteriorated road and bridge conditions and a lack of desirable safety features….

It is long past time to sound the alarm on this issue. It is—literally—a matter of life and death

Candidates, be they incumbents or challengers, should be pushed to answer this fundamental question: What have they done, or what do they pledge to do—specifically—about such dangerous conditions. And citizens need to be made aware of their role in all of this—driving under the influence is illegal. Not wearing seatbelts is stupid. Excess speed kills. 

Let’s force the conversation to happen. It is not about “red” versus “blue”, It is about what is right for our communities.