The year 2021 was one of the deadliest years on Kern County’s rural highways, according to California Highway Patrol.
In June 2021, for example, western Kern County saw eight fatal accidents on rural roads when CHP officers normally see 12 to 15 per year. This scary trend is not necessarily a local one: Nearly half of the more than 36,000 traffic fatalities in the United States each year occur on rural roads, even though only about a fifth of the population lives in rural areas, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. More than 16,000 people died in a crash on U.S. rural roads in 2019.
“Improving safety on … more than 20 other two-lane rural roads in Kern is needed,” said Kern County Supervisor David Couch in the Delano Record. “Prioritizing rural road safety helps rural disadvantaged communities that use these roads the most while helping all our family and friends come home safely.”
Chain | Cohn | Stiles is joining roadway safety advocates and other officials in calling upon our city and county leaders to make Kern County’s rural roads safer for all travelers.
RURAL ROAD PROBLEMS
Transportation experts say a combination of higher speeds, narrow shoulders, lack of lighting and lots of curves contribute to the problem. Additionally, emergency responders may be farther away from crashes and can take longer to arrive at the crash scene, and transport injured drivers and passengers to hospitals.
In 2019, the fatality rate on rural roads was nearly twice as high as on urban ones, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, even with the increase in bike and pedestrian incidents. In 2018, 58% of drivers in rural areas died on the way to hospitals compared with 41% in urban areas, according to the federal highway safety agency.
Nine out of 10 rural traffic fatalities occur on two-lane roads, according to a May 2020 report by TRIP, a national nonprofit transportation research center.
The statistics are especially alarming for Kern County, which is the third-largest county by area in California. Thousands of county residents live in areas categorized as rural, and the county itself stakes its economic health primarily on two industries in rural areas, agriculture and oil, centered in rural Kern County.
WHAT’S BEING DONE
The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill the U.S. Senate passed recently touches on the problem. It would require a study of the issue and launch a new rural road grant program that includes $300 million for high-risk rural road safety programs, according to Pew Charitable Trusts.
Relatively simple engineering changes, such as rumble strips, median barriers, pavement markings, better lighting and wider shoulders could make a big difference in rural road safety, transportation experts and advocates say. The idea is to anticipate human errors by road users, then redesign or add safety features to reduce or eliminate risks that result in serious traffic injuries or deaths.
Some states are already tackling the problem. Illinois’ transportation agency agreed to survey and prioritize the most dangerous rural intersections. Kansas, Minnesota and South Carolina are spending significant amounts to upgrade safety infrastructure or come up with ways to prevent rural crashes — installing rumble strips, wider pavement markings, brighter signs, high-friction surface treatments, guardrails and other improvements. In Minnesota, the state transportation department has installed technology at dozens of rural intersections to give motorists real-time warnings about traffic conditions.
In Kansas, where about 90% of the roads are rural and most are owned by counties, officials discovered that roadway departures — anything that causes drivers to unintentionally leave their lane — were the biggest contributor to fatal or serious crashes. So, officials have set aside $4 million a year in federal funds for its high-risk rural roads program to help all of their counties develop safety plans for their rural roads, including flattening slopes, widening shoulders, installing pavement markings and rumble strips and removing trees that may be too close to the road.
As indicated by this past summer’s statistics, the rural highway fatality rate appears to be growing in Kern County.
“There are easy things we can do in Kern County to help prevent these crashes on rural roads,” said Matt Clark, attorney at Chain | Cohn | Stiles. “Things like rumble strips alert drivers that they’ve made an error, and combined with wider shoulders, could save countless lives.”
Clark added: “Safety needs to be built into every road in Kern County, whether it’s city or rural roadways, and whether it’s for maintenance or new road construction. Our lives depend on it.”