March 10, 2005

What if?

by Chris Feeney

What if there were better roads to nowhere? Iíll never forget that infamous headline ďRoads to NowhereĒ referring to the now defunct 15-year plan for the Missouri Department of Transportation. I canít recall if it was a St. Louis or the Kansas City editorial that used the line to complain about rural Missouri getting half the stateís transportation dollars under the failed MoDOT plan.

Well, the blueprint was washed away by financial woes for the stateís highway department. That was probably our last true shot at getting a fair shake on tax dollars for highways.

Itís a shame to, especially considering the recent report, the Road Information Program from TRIP, a national nonprofit transportation research group.

According to the study released last week, rural Americans die in motor-vehicle accidents at a rate 2.5 times higher than urban residents. That means we are 250% more likely to be killed in a car crash traveling down a crooked two-lane county route than the average St. Louis resident who is zooming down the interstate in wall-to-wall traffic at 80 mph.

When you first look at the statistics, they are a bit deceiving. Just more than half - 52 percent - of traffic fatalities in the United States between 1999 and 2003 have occurred on rural, non-interstate roads and highways. The kicker is that vehicle travel on these roads only accounted for 28 percent of travel during that period, according to the TRIP report.

TRIPís study, ďGrowing Traffic in Rural America: Safety, Mobility and Economic Challenges in Americaís Heartland,Ē found that there has been an average of 22,127 traffic fatalities annually on the nationís rural, non-interstate roads between 1999 and 2003. During the same period, there was an average of 42,301 people killed each year in traffic accidents on all roads in the U.S.

The traffic fatality rate on non-interstate rural roads in 2003 was 2.72 deaths for every 100 million vehicle miles of travel, compared to a traffic fatality rate on all other roads in 2003 of 0.99 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles of travel.

Between 1990 and 2002, vehicle travel on rural roads increased by 27 percent and commercial truck travel on rural roads increased by 32 percent.

Approximately 60 million people live in rural communities, approximately 21 percent of the nationís population. The nationís rural population has increased by 11 percent since 1990.

Rural drivers are more likely to face narrow lanes, limited shoulders, sharp curves, exposed hazards, pavement drop-offs, steep slopes and limited clear zones along roadsides. Plus the majority of our travel is on two-lane roads, just feet away from oncoming traffic heading in the opposite direction at a dangerous pace.

Okay - thatís a lot of numbers to swallow, but what the report basically says, is that while just over 1/5 of the nationís people live in rural America, more than half of the people killed in car crashes reside in these non-urban settings.

Thatís sort of ironic. Itís always the city drivers that are laughing at us as we attempt to navigate traffic jams, exit lanes, streetlights and the overall mass havoc of driving downtown. Apparently that should be less stressful than an urbanite having to drive on our roads. Sure traffic is a breeze, well until you have to squeeze across a narrow bridge hoping that oncoming semi doesnít take off the side of your car.

Maybe itís foreshadowing. Maybe the roads themselves are the reason that they are roads to nowhere. Take a look at these stats and no wonder nobody wants to travel to our rural settings. That would be like taking your life in your own hands, if you were voluntarily increasing the chances of your untimely departure from this world by 250% by simply steering your car onto a rural highway. Which comes first, a good team or good recruits. You canít have a good team, without good recruits, and itís very difficult to recruit good players to a bad team. The same can be said for roads. Without good roads, you canít expect your town to grow. But unless your town grows, they wonít give you better highways.

Maybe legislators should stop focusing so much on roads that make travel more convenient for city folks, and start spending part of that money on roads that will save the lives of a few more of us country folk. Numbers like these could help the people in Kansas City and St. Louis to decide to lend us a hand. They could tell their lawmakers they donít mind a couple more minutes on the commute to and from work if it means saving the lives of a few more of their fellow Missourians that have to travel less safe rural roadways.

Are they really roads to nowhere? Right now this report makes it sound like many of the rural highways do have a destination - the cemetery.

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