Bemidji, Minn. — A new University of Minnesota study shows that drivers are more prone to risk-taking on rural highways, even though that's where most fatal accidents occur.
The perception that rural roadways are safer is common. But Minnesotans are much more likely to die on rural highways than on roads in urban areas where most people live, according to a traffic safety survey done by the university's Center for Excellence in Rural Safety.
Last year, about 70 percent of all traffic fatalities occurred outside the seven-county Twin Cities metropolitan area.
The survey found that 69 percent of respondents nationwide felt safe on urban freeways. But 79 percent felt safe on rural, two lane highways.
Among those who think rural highways are safer is Matt Goede, who typically drives 30 miles a day on a two-lane highway between Bemidji and his rural home in Tenstrike.
Goede said he prefers driving on rural highways over urban roads around the Twin Cities.
"I guess that's why I live up north," he said. "Not as many people, better roads. It's the country, you know."
Goede said he feels safer on rural roads, because he believes there are fewer aggressive drivers and distractions, unlike urban roads, where anything can happen.
"You get more people and there's going to be more accidents, there's going to be more people on their phones, more women doing their make-up in the mornings on the way to work, whatever," Goede said.
Center for Excellence in Rural Safety director Lee Munnich said drivers appear to be taking unnecessary risks on rural roads. Munnich said the survey shows people are more relaxed and comfortable with risk-taking on roads where they're most likely to be killed.
"They feel that there isn't the same level of risk as there is in urban areas, but the opposite is true," Munnich said. "There are significant safety hazards, and their behaviors -- such as not wearing a seat belt, or using a cell phone, eating while driving -- all of these things are a higher risk in rural areas."
The risk-taking on rural roads includes drinking and driving. The survey shows one in four rural residents is more likely to drink and drive on rural roads. That level is nearly as high for urban residents who responded to the survey.
"Even though they knew that it was not a good thing to do, they were more likely to drink and drive on rural roads than urban roads," Munnich said. "And the statistics show that a high proportion of rural road fatalities are attributable to drinking and driving."
That's true in Minnesota, where nearly three-quarters of the alcohol-related traffic deaths happened on rural roads. State law enforcement agencies have increased patrols out this Labor Day weekend -- typically among the deadliest each year for alcohol-related crashes
State public safety officials say there's a range of reasons why more fatal accidents happen on rural highways. For one, while law enforcement agencies report a 90 percent compliance with seat belt laws, the rate is lower in rural Minnesota.
Cheri Marti, director of the state Office of Traffic Safety, said speeding is also a big problem on rural roads. Those roads tend to have narrower shoulders, more curves and are often poorly lit. She says the U of M study should be a wake-up call for drivers.
"It confirms what we're seeing statistically in traffic fatalities year after year," Marti said. "So this is a trend that isn't changing. So there does seem to be something going on in the rural community that's very different than the urban community."
Marti said the key to changing people's attitudes lies with enforcement and with public education campaigns.
"We can't get into people's cars and force them to make different decisions behind the wheel," she said. "I think that people are dangerously overconfident in their vehicles and certainly not sensitive enough to the safe driving behaviors that they really need to practice."
The U of M survey also revealed another big myth about traffic safety: 83 percent of respondents considered winter to be the most dangerous season for driving on rural roadways. In reality, one in three fatal accidents occurs during the summer, especially on holiday weekends.