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More deaths on two-lane highways; more money for expressways

WASHINGTON (AP) – The road less traveled can be deadly.

More Americans are killed on rural roads than crowded urban expressways, even though the two-lanes carry less traffic. The rural roads also receive less federal money, and that has officials pressing for more safety improvements.

”There seems to be a disconnect,” said Bob Fogel, associate legislative director of the National Association of Counties. ”Roads owned by local governments don’t seem to be getting their share of federal highway dollars, even though statistics point out that those roads tend to have a higher rate of fatalities.”



Taking two specific categories, urban expressways got $80,900 in federal funds per lane mile in 1999, while rural local roads, the lowest category, received $100 per mile, according to Congress’ General Accounting Office. Those local rural roads recorded 4,758 deaths – a rate of 3.79 per hundred million vehicle miles traveled – compared with 1,354 deaths along urban freeways, a rate of 0.79 per hundred million miles.

Numbers covering all of the nation’s streets, roads and highways show the same trend, the GAO reported. In 1999, roads passing communities of at least 5,000 people carried 1.6 trillion miles of traffic and recorded 15,816 highway deaths, a rate of 0.97 per hundred million miles. Roads farther out in the country had 1.1 trillion miles of traffic and 25,107 deaths, a rate of 2.36.




In eastern Connecticut, an 11-mile stretch of U.S. 6 where an average of two people are killed each year is called ”Suicide Six.” Some 2,300 miles away, another two-lane stretch of U.S. 6 through the Wasatch Mountains is considered Utah’s deadliest highway, as drivers sitting behind slow-moving trucks refuse to wait for the passing lanes.

One reason for the higher fatalities is that motorists drive fast on those two-lane rural roads, said Lindsay Griffin, director of the transportation safety center at Texas A&M University’s Texas Transportation Institute.

”You may not have as much traffic but you may have higher traveling speeds,” Griffin said.

Also, these roads often aren’t built to modern safety standards. The lanes may be narrower, and there is no median to separate oncoming traffic. Some rural roads are being used as commuter routes as suburban sprawl moves farther out from central cities and congestion on major highways increases.

”There is a need, unquestionably, for safety improvements on these two-lane roads,” said John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and a former official of Kitsap County, Wash.

Horsley cited Georgia, Mississippi and Missouri as three states where major programs are under way to widen dangerous two-lane roads. In Wisconsin, construction is scheduled to begin next year on adding two lanes to a two-lane stretch of U.S. 12. There have been more than 30 deaths on the highway since 1985.

Still, most federal money flows to urban highways because that’s where the traffic is.

”Investment patterns are a reflection of where the travel is occurring,” said Frank Moretti, research director for The Road Information Program, a research group funded by the construction industry. ”Urban roads are where the heaviest travel is occurring and they’re getting beaten up more.”

It costs a lot more to repair an urban highway than a rural road, especially because more work is done at night and in congested areas, and because land for widening is more expensive, Moretti said.

At the same time, rural roads are being asked to carry more traffic and heavier trucks then they were designed for.

”The road historically thought about as a rural road is now becoming heavily traveled,” Fogel said. ”The road wasn’t built to the standards needed for those purposes. Those roads are being worn down.”

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On the Net:

General Accounting Office report: http://www.gao.gov

The Road Information Program: http://www.tripnet.org

National Association of Counties: http://www.naco.org

American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials: http://www.transportation.org


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