On rural routes, it’s best to yield, second-guess your GPS and observe the Golden Rule when it comes to making someone eat your dust. You can get there from here, but it may take a while.
With nearly 3 million miles of rural roads in the United States, why does it seem like all the slow-moving vehicles are in front of you?
It's hard to be creeping along behind farm equipment and not feel like that tractor should have taken some other route and stayed out of your way. And it's so tempting to try to pass before you get stuck back there for a few miles.
People in a hurry, distracted drivers, greenhorns and drunks do stupid things on rural roads — if not by intent then by reflex. They pass on the double yellow without wondering why it's a no-passing zone, or fail to register the blinker on farm equipment that's about to make a wide-right turn off a two-lane road. Or they completely space that a vehicle is slowing down to make a turn. The repeat-offense drunk driver who hit me on a rural road in Iowa in 1998 didn't see a grain truck stopping to make a turn until he was too close to brake. To avoid plowing into a truck that was bigger than his, he pulled into my lane, hitting me nearly head-on.
Soon after, I was hit by the realization that all the times my parents had said "Be careful" they didn't mean "We don't trust you." They meant, "We don't trust anyone else out there." They knew that anything can happen on a rural road.
Here are a few things you may not have learned in driver's ed. about driving in the country. You might want to share them with your city cousins before their next visit.
Don't trust GPS. In rural northern Wisconsin, for example, selecting "shortest route" is liable to lead you down what locals would call a logging road or snowmobile trail. You might get a ways before realizing you can't go forward and can't turn around. Before you start backing out, pray for guidance around all the rocks and other hazards that could render your vehicle inoperable. It's not easy to get a tow out there.
Learn the etiquette of dust. More than a third of all road miles in the U.S. are unpaved gravel or dirt. Urban refugees who buy homes on gravel roads often fail to see the charm of all the dust and start lobbying to have the road paved. Actually, there's very little charm in all that dust. But there are ways to live with it. For example, it's considered neighborly to slow down in the vicinity of people walking or working near gravel roads, and where you can see laundry pegged out on a clothesline. It's also considered neighborly to take your dust-caked vehicle to the self-service car wash (considered a dependable small-town business opportunity) before funerals, weddings and other events where people stand around visiting in parking lots while dressed in their good clothes.
Keep your eyes on the road. If you can see through the dust, that is. Because chances are, the other driver isn't. Distracted driving is not just a city thing. It may be a long way to a fast food joint, but that doesn't mean other drivers aren't eating (probably stuff they bought at a gas station). Or they may be talking on cell phones, texting, trying to find a radio station or squabbling with their kids. A neighbor who shall remain nameless got caught not once but twice with a book propped up on the steering wheel. In other words, with less traffic demanding our attention the temptation to multi-task is hard to resist.
Yield, even if you don't have to. That multi-tasking or zoned-out driver might drift onto the shoulder or over the center line — or blow right through a stop sign. Even with rumble strips and flashing lights, locals assume at least one vehicle a day will fail to note the four-way stop at the intersection of two state highways near my home. According to the Federal Highway Safety Administration (FHSA) intersections contribute to about 21% of traffic fatalities and half of serious injuries.
And you might as well expect vehicles on curvy, narrow roads to be going just a little faster than they should. Which is why motorcycle riders venturing onto narrow, curvy rural roads might think twice about the standard practice of hugging the center line. In one notable ambulance call in my neighborhood, two motorcyclists traveling opposite directions caught each other's foot pegs. And in car-versus-motorcycle collisions, guess who wins?
According to FHSA, the fatality rate for rural crashes is more than twice the fatality rate in urban crashes. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) identifies four important factors that contribute to traffic deaths on rural roads:
With prudent behavior, you might convince yourself you can exercise some control over three of the four. But there's not much you can do to decrease the time it takes to reach advanced medical care.
It's a long way to a hospital. Where you can actually get a signal (which is not a given in many rural areas), cell phones are great for speeding up the time it takes to get help to the scene of a crash. After an accident is reported, the 911 dispatcher alerts emergency medical personnel, who leave from their homes or work or church or wherever they may be. It takes time for them to reach their station to get an ambulance, which carries specialized equipment, and get it to the scene. At the same time, a volunteer fire department may be dispatched. They bring personnel, extrication equipment and large, heavy vehicles that are parked strategically to help protect the people working on the scene from drivers looking at the wreckage instead of watching the road.
For serious injuries, the ambulance crew may call to get a medical helicopter en route, or to ask for a paramedic intercept. (In our area, that's where the city fire department meets the rural volunteer ambulance on the road and a paramedic joins the ambulance's crew of emergency medical technicians to provide advanced care the rest of the way to the hospital.) Under ideal conditions, it takes a medical helicopter about 25 minutes to reach our area. Running with lights and siren (and assuming other drivers yield), our ambulance crew can reach the hospital by road in about 20 minutes from most parts of their service area.
So in our area, if a patient reaches a hospital within 40 minutes of dispatch, that's not bad. If extrication is needed, that means first blocking the vehicle to prevent movement, stabilizing the patient(s), determining where it's safe and effective to cut the frame, and operating specialized equipment. So add another 10 to 20 minutes or more. For the patient, that can be a cold, scary, painful hour, or even longer in some areas.
And those volunteers? En route to the station, en route to the scene, en route to the hospital, and all the way back home they face hazards presented by … you guessed it … human behavior, roadway environment and vehicle factors.
It may feel like a safari. It's not just human behavior you have to be concerned about. While driving on rural roads, I've seen black bear (including sows with four cubs on two separate occasions), bobcat, and quite possibly a cougar (too far away to be sure). I've come across livestock that got out, and had wild turkeys try to get in (through my windshield). I've hit deer, raccoons and a neighbor's dog (with all their kids in the front yard, all of them sobbing as hard as I was). When I was an EMT, I responded to one call dispatched as "motorcycle versus coyote."
On safari, you might at least get some decent pictures. On rural roads, you're more likely to get a story everyone has already heard before and a trip to the ER, or at least to the body shop.
If you were wondering, a 500-pound black bear can take out a semi, which will not swerve to avoid the collision. Truck drivers are trained that swerving into another lane can cause an even worse accident.
They're more scared of you than you are of them. Like bears, moose and other giants that venture onto rural roads, drivers of farm equipment sometimes feel like moving targets. They get rear-ended by motorists who underestimate their size and speed, or don't expect them to pull back into the roadway to avoid mailboxes and culverts. They roll over into ditches when they pull too far on the shoulder to let vehicles pass. They get plowed into at intersections, and when turning onto and off of public roads. They don't want to be where you are any more than you want them there.
Farmers get pretty nervous about the interface between their slow-moving equipment and fast-moving traffic. Even in rural areas, many drivers have never had any first-hand experience with farm equipment. They often underestimate its size and misjudge the clearance needed to pass. Or they overestimate its speed and come up on it faster than expected. So it's important to slow down immediately when approaching farm equipment to give yourself time to read the situation and check for turn signals, hand signals, obstructions and intersections as well as oncoming traffic.
They would if they could. While you're creeping along behind farm equipment wondering why it couldn't take some other route to and from the fields, rest assured that they would if they could. But many rural roads and bridges were designed 50 to 80 years ago. No one expected them to handle today's traffic volume and farm equipment of modern widths and weights. To get farm equipment, personnel and products where they have to go is a carefully choreographed endeavor, especially during the busy planting and harvest seasons. And it's getting tougher as rural roads and bridges deteriorate.
Infrastructure is crumbling. To avoid highway travel, many farmers take longer routes on minimally maintained secondary roads. And even that is getting harder. Counties, which are responsible for building and maintaining 45 percent of public roads and 230,690 bridges, are faced with rising costs, increased traffic volumes, decreased federal and state aids, and limited options for other ways to fund road work. So maintenance is deferred or delayed until the roads and bridges are so unsafe they're closed.
In southern Iowa, for example, friends who farm can now reach one set of fields only by traveling a stretch of state highway. The bridge on the gravel road they used to use was deemed unsafe a few years ago. With no occupied dwellings on that road, you can't blame the county for not spending the money to repair or replace the bridge. Instead, they tore out the bridge and gated the road. Landowners can access a lockbox with the key to the gate — after taking another set of gravel roads and a stretch of highway. Now our friends make careful plans during harvest that have them shuttling equipment to those fields at first light and working like mad with two extra combines and additional equipment and personnel hired from neighbors so they can be done and off the highway before dark.
According to the Council of State Governments:
TRIP, a national transportation research group, rates 12 percent of the nation’s major rural roads as being in poor condition. Four Midwestern states rank in the bottom 20 in this category: Kansas, with 28 percent, and South Dakota, Michigan and Illinois, each with 17 percent.
TRIP also found that 13 percent of rural bridges are structurally deficient and 10 percent more are functionally obsolete. In the Midwest, Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska and North Dakota are among the 10 states with the highest percentage of obsolete bridges.
Report after report recommends an increase in local and state transportation projects to preserve rural roads, highways and bridges and to accommodate the traffic needed to support a rural economy.
How is it paid for? Wisconsin is known for its good roads. In the Dairy State, county and township roads were paved so milk trucks could get to farms. Wisconsin is also known for high gas prices compared to some of our Midwest neighbors. At the gas pump, you won't see how much of the price is actually the gas tax used to help fund building and maintenance of those paved roads. This interactive map from uscounties.org might help.
In many states, gas taxes have been considered a form of use tax: The more you used the roads, the more gas you burn so the more gas tax you pay when you fill your tank. That seems fair, as heavy users pay more than light users. But that model will have to change in the future. Federal fuel efficiency standards, high prices at the pumps (don't you expect them to go back up?) and basic common sense say we should learn to burn less non-renewable fossil fuels. So shouldn't we be looking for some other way besides gas tax to pay for roads and bridges if we want to continue to use them safely?
Until then, rural areas across the country will struggle to keep up with their crumbling roads and bridges. According to the Council of State Governments, in some areas local officials have started grinding up damaged pavement and converting those roads to gravel. That costs about $5,000 per mile, compared to $200,000 per mile to repave a road. Michigan and South Dakota have each downgraded more than 100 miles of paved roads that way.
What's ahead? The future of rural roads is hard to see through that cloud of dust. As sure as deer run into cars in the country, the answers won't be universally loved. Everybody seems to think it wouldn't break the bank to fix the roads they travel, but no one seems to want to pay for infrastructure in low-population areas. It's possible that this form of human behavior might be added to speeding, alcohol, and failure to use seat belts in future studies of traffic fatalities.
It's also possible that some 14-year-old farm kid now driving on a school permit will come up with a brilliant solution — one that balances urban and rural needs and helps make roads safer for passenger vehicles, trucks, farm machinery, ATVs, horses, bicycles, emergency vehicles, pedestrians, and the neighbor's dog that chases every car that goes past their house.
In the meantime, people in rural areas will find a way to get by. But they may have to go the long way to get there.
Donna Kallner is a fiber artist from rural northern Wisconsin, where her neighbors carry chain saws in their trucks and can have a downed tree cleared off the road before the highway department can get there.