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McClatchy Newspapers, Published May 24 2010

Quiet conditions on rural roads can be deceiving

MINNEAPOLIS – The sky was clear and the spring afternoon was filled with promise as four girls from Lewiston-Altura High School piled into a pickup and headed off to start their weekend.

A half-hour later, Shauna Ruhoff, 16, Morgan Zeller, 13, and Katie Hornberg, 14, were dead and Cydney Maker, 12, was clinging to life after the truck veered off a two-lane county road in southeastern Minnesota and flipped in a grassy ditch. Three of the girls were not wearing seat belts; the survivor said she was wearing a lap belt. All four were thrown from the truck.

“It shouldn’t have happened,” said Winona County Sheriff Dave Brand, who was called to the horrific scene that April afternoon. “It was a flat road. It was dry. Everything was visible.”

It may be quieter and less congested on the roads of rural America, but don’t be deceived: They can be deadly.

While the seven-county Twin Cities metro area has more than half of the state’s population, roughly two out of three traffic deaths statewide – and nationwide – occur in rural areas.

Despite efforts in several states to devise strategies to reduce fatalities, the toll remains too high.

Just how treacherous these backroads can be was made tragically clear when, over the span of eight days in late April, 16 people died in crashes across Minnesota. Most occurred on rural roads, including a head-on collision in Cambridge that killed six people, including four teenagers.

“We go to crashes every day, and we pull up and see the wreckage and say, ‘Holy cow, I can’t believe they lived!’ ” said Lt. Eric Roeske of the State Patrol. “That happens a lot, but this (was) one of those stretches where the near misses weren’t near misses.”

The geography of rural America and the often inadequate design or maintenance of many country roads are partly to blame.

Two-lane highways with high speeds and narrow shoulders leave little room for driver error. Routes that twist and curve or have little if any lighting can be tricky to navigate. Add snow, rain, alcohol, wildlife or a blind intersection, and you have more trouble.

The remoteness of many accident scenes – far from hospitals or trauma centers – plays a part in fatalities, too.

“Depending on where you are, it could be a while before anyone knows you’ve even had a crash,” said Pete Rahn, a traffic consultant in Kansas City and former director of Missouri’s Department of Transportation. “How quickly you can get medical attention is critical in a rural crash.”

Still, much of the blame for rural fatalities falls to the drivers, many of whom are lulled into a false sense of security. With little traffic, it’s easy to relax. With too many miles of roadways and too few officers, it’s easy to speed, to drink and drive, or to drive without buckling up.

“A lot of times, people think they are safer on rural roads, so they take more risks,” said Lee Munnich, director of the Center for Excellence in Rural Safety at the University of Minnesota. “Sometimes they drive faster or say to themselves, ‘I can talk on my cell phone or text because there is not much traffic.’ But they are traveling at higher speeds, so if there is a crash, the likelihood of a fatality is higher.”

Four days before the crash that killed the Lewiston-Altura girls, Blake Eckert, an 18-year-old graduate of Winona Area Learning Center, was killed and two passengers were injured when the car Eckert was driving swerved off a Winona County road and rolled. Eckert, who was wearing a seat belt, was text-messaging seconds before the crash, Brand said.

“He went into the curve, and when he looked up, he overcorrected,” the sheriff said. “He tried to get back on the road and couldn’t.”

Jim Hedlund, a traffic safety consultant and former researcher for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said the risky behavior is often reinforced because the chance of crashing on a rural road is “extraordinarily low.”

In Minnesota, nearly two-thirds of 2008 crashes were in the seven-county metro area.

“If you are in a congested urban area, you’ll see a crash every second or third day driving into work,” Hedlund said, “but if you are in a rural setting, you may not see one for a very long time. And that adds to the sense that ‘it won’t happen to me.’ ”

Another factor, Munnich said, is a “cultural resistance” in rural areas to stronger enforcement measures, such as using seat belts.

Minnesota Department of Public Safety statistics show that 80 percent of the state’s unbelted traffic deaths occur outside the seven-county metro area.

Hedlund said rural residents, as a whole, tend to have an “I don’t want somebody in the state House telling me what I have to do” attitude. “It’s the frontier mentality that absolutely thrives on doing things for yourself,” he said.

Alarmed by the statistics, some states have devised strategies over the past decade to cut the number of fatal crashes.

The Minnesota program, called Toward Zero Deaths, started in 2004 and works off the premise that nearly all crashes are preventable.

Under the program, state transportation and public safety officials analyze crash data to identify troubling trends and accident hot spots in hopes of improving roads and driver behavior. Among the findings: About half of rural crashes occur when cars leave their lanes and hit another car head-on or a tree or embankment.

As a result, crews have installed hundreds of miles of guard cables on divided highways to prevent head-on, crossover accidents. They’ve also placed rumble stripes – a combination of rumble strips and painted stripes – on centerlines to alert drivers who drift out of their traffic lane.

Other investments include bigger and brighter signs, additional pavement markings and more lights at intersections. In Minnesota and Missouri, engineers also have painted wider stripes – 6-inch stripes instead of 4-inch stripes – on the centerlines of many roads.

“It’s all about making sure people are where they are supposed to be and to keep them in their travel lane,” Rahn said.

Along with the engineering work, Minnesota has increased efforts to patrol routes for speeders, drunken drivers and seat-belt violators. Public safety officials also have supported efforts by several local communities, including Isanti County, to devise “safe ride” programs for those who might consider driving after drinking.

As a result, rural traffic deaths in Minnesota dropped from 410 in 2004 to 306 in 2008, according to the Department of Public Safety.

“There are people going home who otherwise wouldn’t be if we had not moved in this direction,” said Bernie Arseneau, head of MnDOT’s policy safety and strategic initiatives division. “We’re moving back in the right direction, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The people of Lewiston and Altura know that all too well.

Weeks after the crash that killed the three girls, a banner went up in the high school cafeteria reading: “Lewiston-Altura students and staff pledge to wear our seat belts.” Dozens of students and teachers have signed it.

“It hit everybody here pretty hard,” said Principal Jeff Apse. “There’s definitely a heightened awareness of what might happen if you don’t buckle up.”