I got a news alert recently from my hometown newspaper. That’s nothing new. It seems something awful has happened there at a steady clip lately.
This particular awful thing barely registered right away. Two tow truck operators had been killed on Interstate 90 in Montana early in the morning when someone failed to pay heed to emergency signs and lights and tried to pass a semi at the scene of a wreck.
Later that day, through a variety of acquaintances’ social media posts, I realized I knew one of the people killed. He and his five siblings were in my 4-H club, and he graduated a year ahead of me from the same high school. Later, he worked on a feedlot for a friend of my dad, and he had a reputation as a good guy and a good worker who was raising five children with his wife. His younger sister was a middle hitter on my volleyball team. His mom was a vocal fan at those volleyball games and also was my 4-H sewing leader; her instruction likely is the part of the reason my mom and I get along so well today since someone else was able to watch me sew my crooked hems and struggle with putting in zippers.
I can’t imagine the devastation the families involved are feeling right now, and my heart goes out to them. Being able to put a face and a family to one of the victims brought it home all the more.
But the reality is, many families will face that same devastation every day across the country. Crashes — because the word “accidents” implies it was no one’s fault — in rural areas kill thousands of people every year, and the proportion of fatal rural crashes compared to fatal urban crashes far exceeds the proportion of people who live in rural areas.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled on rural roads was 1.79 in 2017, compared to 0.85 in urban areas.
Why such a disparity? Well, for starters, like this crash, many occur on interstates and highways that weave through open land and allow faster speeds. Investigators, according to news reports, have labeled speed as a likely factor in the crash that killed the two tow truck drivers. It was a snowy, icy morning, and going too fast makes stopping difficult.
That speed also can be a factor in the rural crashes that aren’t on highways and interstates. Going too fast on a gravel road can lead to nothing but trouble.
And then, we can’t forget the use of alcohol and drugs. That wasn’t a factor in the Montana crash, but it is a significant factor in many rural and urban crashes. NHTSA stats show that in 2017, the alcohol-impaired driving fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in rural areas was 0.51 — more than double the urban rate of 0.25.
There are many other factors, too — seat belt use, large equipment on roads, road conditions, vehicle types. But the bottom line is, it’s more dangerous to drive on rural roads than around town.
So, as you’re driving around, whether on backroads or down the highway, remember to be responsible, slow down and watch for problems. You could save your own life or the life of someone else. And, in particular, if you see warning lights or signs or indications of problems, slow down and watch out for unusual obstacles. The tow truck operators, law enforcement and other emergency personnel serve a vital purpose and deserve a safe workplace.
I think we all can agree that there’s been enough devastation in the region lately without adding to it.
Jenny Schlecht is Agweek's content manager. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, N.D., with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at email@example.com or 701-595-0425.