Crash fatalities down; rural roads can still be dangerous

KELOLAND.com Original
Yankton Woman Heard Deadly Crash On Highway 50

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Although crash fatalities are expected to reach an historic low for 2019, rural roads are still a dangerous place for vehicles.

The South Dakota Department of Public Safety (DPS) said that state was on pace for a record low number of roadway fatalities with 102 as of Jan. 28. The next lowest year was 111 in 2011 since the state started keeping records in 1947. Tony Mangan of the DPS said if a person dies within 30 days of a crash, that death is recorded as a traffic fatality.

The DPS was not yet able to provide details on what types of roads on which those fatalities happened but information from the South Dakota Department of Transportation shows rural roads were the site of most fatal crashes through 2018.

According to the state’s DOT Highway Safety Plan for FY2020, 91.1% (112) of 2018 traffic crash fatalities occurred on rural roadways while 18.9% (11) happened on urban roadways. Injury-to-fatality ratios suggest that rural crashes remain more likely than urban crashes to produce fatalities, all else being equal.

From 2010 to 2014, 352 or 30%, of the state’s fatal crashes happened on two-lane roads, according to the SDDOT.

A South Dakota Department of Transportation table showing the traffic fatality rate in rural areas compared to urban areas. Chart is from SDDOT’s FY 2020 Strategic Highway Safety Transportation Plan.

Many of South Dakota’s roads are in rural areas which has some influence on the number of fatalities on rural roads but, according to SDDOT, how people drive and distance from emergency care are also contributors to the number of fatal crashes.

The National Conference of State Legislators said in April of 2017 that rural roads need to be the subject of attention because “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.”

Rural roads often have potential hazards that aren’t found in urban settings or on interstates.

Some of those potential hazards include narrow widths, field approaches, culverts, traveling farm machinery.

Although speed can be a factor in a fatal or injury crash on a rural road or highway, increasing the speed limit to 80 mph on interstates in South Dakota does not appear to have increased the number of fatal crashes on those interstates, according to Mangan.

“We’ve not seen any noticeable increase in fatalities because of the 80 mph speed limit on interstates,” Mangen said.

This is a South Dakota Department of Transportation chart that shows a five-year average of fatalities including urban and rural traffic fatalities. Chart is from SDDOT’s FY2020 Strategic Highway Safety Transportation Plan.

There are more than 82,000 miles of road in South Dakota and SDDOT operates 9% of those miles, according to the agency’s 2109 strategic highway safety plan. Of the miles SDDOT operates, 52% of severe crashes occurred on these roads. The number of severe crashes per mile is 10 times higher on state roads than non-state roads, according to the 2019 SDDOT plan.

South Dakota DOT also identifies the risk of head-on crashes on two-lane roads as a safety concern. Although in its Highway Safety Plan, the DOT said in its Highway Safety Plan head-on and center line crossing crashes are not a large number of crashes, they represent a significant amount of serious crashes.

The SDDOT started adding center line rumble strips in 2017 as a way to reduce the number of fatal crashes and injury crashes on rural roads.

Those centerline rumble strips are working, said Andy Vandel, a highway safety engineer with SDDOT.

“Based on two years of before and after crash data, South Dakota has seen a 47% reduction of all cross centerline crashes (head-on, sideswipe opposite direction, road departure left) and a 62% reduction in fatal and injury crashes on roadways with centerline rumble strips,” Vandel said.

The state has 354 miles of roads with center line rumble strips, he said.

The average shoulder width of a two-lane road is four feet, Vandel said.

Depending on the traffic count, the ultimate paved shoulder width for a reconstructed or newly constructed two lane road should be six or eight feet, according to the state’s road design manual The higher the traffic count, the wider the shoulder.

The SDDOT standard lane width for reconstruction or construction of a two lane rural highway is 12 feet, according to the state’s road design manual.

South Dakota began installing shoulder rumble strips with stand alone projects starting in 2010 as a way to reduce the number of crashes as well as fatal and injury crashes. The state has 7,196 miles of road with shoulder rumble strips.

Vandel said that based on crash data from three years prior and three years after 2010, the state had had a 20% reduction in fatal and injury crashes on roads with shoulder rumble strips. The number of road departure crashes decreased by 21%.

Rumble strips give drivers a physical warning and an audible warning that they have crossed the center line or shoulder line.

Vandel said when the state reconstructs or constructs a new road it follows standards from the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) through coordination with the Federal Highway Administration. South Dakota’s reconstruction standards exceed national standards, Vandel said.

Vandel said rumble strips and center line strips are helping to reduce crashes on two lane roads and the DPS said in its Jan. 28 news release that educating the public and enforcement campaigns have also helped. The DPS teaches about the importance of seat belt use and sober driving as well as the dangers of distracted driving, Mangan said.

Mangan said the average number of annual fatalities have decreased since 2005. From 2005 to 2009, the state averaged 155 crash fatalities a year. The number declined to 131 from 2010-2014. There was even more of a decline from 2015-2019 to 122 a year.

The state of South Dakota is expected to reach an historic low when it comes to crash fatalities and it’s been more than 40 years since it reached historic highs.

A list of fatal crashes from the DPS shows a record number of fatal crashes was set in 1972 with 235. A record number of people, 296, died from crashes in 1969. In 1972 the record number of fatal crashes killed 294 people.

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