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Iowa's rural roads are far more deadly than city highways

With more than 70 percent of fatalities in rural areas, officials focus on behavior, engineering

Jun 19, 2018 at 9:30 am
    A memorial to Devon Erickson, 18, of Grundy Center, Iowa, stands next to a utility poll where his vehicle came to rest after rolling over along Wallace Avenue south of Green Mountain-Garwin Elementary School in Green Mountain, Iowa, on Tuesday, April 17, 2018. Erickson later died from injuries sustained in the early Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017 crash. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

    MARSHALL COUNTY — Just 35 minutes into the new year in 2017, Marshall County saw its first fatal crash.

    An 18-year-old from Grundy County, Devon Erickson, was driving through Green Mountain — a rural unincorporated community in Marshall County — when he crashed and was thrown from his vehicle. Erickson had a blood alcohol content of 0.126 percent and was going 101 mph seconds before the crash, an investigation showed. He was taken to a Des Moines hospital, where he died of his injuries.

    Two days later, Steven Hoffman took office as Marshall County sheriff.

    “In my first meeting with the deputies, I made it clear that traffic safety was a priority of mine,” Hoffman recalled during an interview this past spring. “For all practical purposes, that’s how people die in Marshall County. It’s not by violence. People are dying on our roadways.”

    Marshall County ultimately would see 12 people killed in 11 crashes in 2017. While statewide traffic fatality numbers for that year are not available, Hoffman said those 12 deaths tied Marshall County for third in the state, just behind Polk and Linn counties.

    Polk County has a population of more than 482,00, and Linn County’s population is more than 224,000.

    By contrast, Marshall County’s population is roughly 40,000.

    “That’s not a class I care to be in,” Hoffman said.

    The Jan. 1 crash in Marshall County is considered a “rural crash” — those that occur outside city limits or within towns with a population of fewer than 5,000 people. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Iowa had 404 traffic fatalities in 2016. Of those, 306 occurred in rural areas, or 76 percent. In 2015, 72 percent — 230 — of Iowa’s 320 traffic fatalities happened in rural areas.

    Numbers are not yet available for 2017.

    John McGlothlen / The Gazette

    ‘The fear ... isn’t as great’

    Authorities say there are several reasons why so many of Iowa’s fatalities happen in rural areas. One is the state itself, said Todd Olmstead, a program administrator, youth coordinator and rural roads coordinator with the Iowa Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau.

    “Iowa is a rural state for the most part,” Olmstead said. “A majority of the state is rural.”

    Other largely rural states have a similar percentage of rural traffic fatalities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. For example, 76 percent — 166 — of Nebraska’s 218 traffic fatalities in 2016 were rural. In Kansas, 67 percent of the fatalities happened in rural areas.

    Because most of Iowa is rural, most of its roads are designed accordingly. Rural roads tend to have narrower shoulders, meaning there’s less space between the road and the ditch. Rural roads also have more uncontrolled intersections, where fatal crashes can occur, Olmstead said. In the summer, when the corn is high, visibility at these intersections can be even worse.

    Olmstead also pointed out that law enforcement doesn’t have as big of a presence in smaller communities — many of which don’t have their own police departments and rely on the county sheriff’s office.


    “Because of the enforcement maybe not being as great ... you see people do things they wouldn’t be doing in towns such as speeding, impaired driving, running stop signs, texting and driving,” Olmstead said. “The fear of being pulled over and ticketed isn’t as great.”

    And then there’s speed.

    Steve Gent, director of traffic and safety for the Iowa Department of Transportation, disagrees with the notion that speed kills. It does, however, play a role in rural crashes.

    “When you look at our crashes, the interstates are by far the safest roadways we have in the state ... and it’s not even close,” Gent said. “There are no driveways, no intersections, no stop signs. The only way onto or off an interstate is a high-speed ramp.

    “The other part of that, when there is something that goes wrong (on the interstate), the foreslopes and backslopes are very gentle and very forgiving. People can traverse those ditches or medians.”

    But crashes are also less common in urban areas versus rural areas where people are driving slower.

    “In urban areas, people aren’t driving as fast on average,” Gent said. “They have more reaction time. They’re driving slower. When there is a crash, it’s less severe.”

    Rural roads are more dangerous at higher speeds. Rural roads tend to have narrower shoulders and can experience edge ruts — a tire rut made by a vehicle going over wet gravel shoulders — which increase the chances that someone enters the ditch.

    And running off the road is where motorists face the most serious consequences, especially in rural areas. Run off crashes — leaving the road — are the most common in Iowa, Gent said.

    “You get into the ditch and the ditch can be pretty steep and severe,” he said. “You can hit a fixed object — a driveway or a fence post. Or you hit the ditch and roll over versus running off the road on the interstate and you can control your vehicle — mostly — and make a safe stop.”

    According to Iowa Department of Transportation crash rate data — which measures crashes broken down by rural versus municipal road systems — motorists are almost twice as likely to experience a fatal crash on a rural road than on a municipal road.

    The 10-year average, taken from crashes that occurred between 2007 and 2016, shows a fatal crash rate of 1.26 per 100 million vehicle miles of travel on rural roads versus a rate of 0.72 on municipal roads.

    Looking only at the rural road system, the fatal crash rate is 0.49 on rural interstate roads and 1.11 on rural primary roads, but leaps to 2.82 on rural secondary roads.

    Within the municipal road system, the fatal crash rate is 0.54 on municipal interstate roads and 0.96 on municipal primary roads. The fatal crash rate on city streets is 0.91, the data shows.


    The name of the game is enforcement

    So what are state officials doing about these fatalities? For Gent and the Iowa Department of Transportation, safety is tackled from an engineering perspective. Recognizing that wider shoulders offer a greater margin of error, Gent said they are adding more 4-foot shoulders on roads. They’re also adding rumble strips to both the shoulders and centerline on paved roads, he said.

    “It keeps people in their lane,” he said.

    At curves where people are more likely to run off the roads, the DOT has installed more chevrons — those sideways V signs — indicating the curve of the road.

    The DOT also works to remove fixed objects in ditches — the things that motorists can run into if they leave the road.

    “We really try to get a sloped driveway instead of a straight up and down thing,” Gent said. “We try to remove fixed objects. Trees, rocks, big mailboxes. Our signs are breakaway.

    “Really, it goes back to the paved shoulders. It goes back to the rumble strips. And it goes back to fixed objects that you’re going to die if you run into them.”

    At the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau, the name of the game is enforcement, Olmstead said. The bureau offers grants to local law enforcement agencies that allow them to put more officers on patrol, particularly during holiday periods and times of the year when law enforcement sees more impaired drivers.

    In April, for example, the bureau conducted a Regional 420 Enforcement project from April 20 to April 22, giving grants to law enforcement agencies that allowed them to put more officers on patrol during the enforcement period to look for impaired drivers. (“420” refers to 4:20 p.m., as in a time of day for smoking marijuana.)

    The bureau also offers programs on training officers to recognize impaired drivers and trains officers as drug recognition experts. The agency also partners with the Department of Transportation to offer local road safety workshops.

    “We sit down with local law enforcement, the engineers and other players in these rural areas and we talk about traffic safety, road engineering and what can be done to improve traffic safety in their specific community,” Olmstead said.

    And actions are being taken at the local level across the state. When Hoffman became Marshall County sheriff in 2017, one of his first acts was to “reinvigorate” the department’s traffic unit by bringing in deputies with a commitment to traffic safety.


    That’s not just about writing tickets, Hoffman said, but rather being a visible, proactive deputy. The unit — which consists of Sgt. Ben Veren and four deputies — takes a three-pronged approach to traffic safety: enforcement, education and engineering.

    On a recent day in April, Veren showcased some of those efforts. He pointed to where more large, reflective chevrons were installed along a tight curve, and where beacons were added to a stop sign at a T-intersection.

    When it comes to education, the sheriff’s office will “talk to anybody who will listen to us,” about traffic safety, Sheriff Hoffman said.

    The department also has become more data driven. Veren said they use a data collection device and a speed trailer to determine if a certain stretch of road is seeing speed issues. The data collected shows how many vehicles go past the collector, the number of vehicles over and under the posted speed limit, the average speed and the minimum and maximum speeds.

    The data collector doesn’t issue tickets like a speed camera but can be used to determine if more enforcement is necessary in that area.

    In April, the data collector was set up just north of Green Mountain where the fatal crash occurred on Jan. 1, 2017.

    “It consumes a lot of time and resources for us, but it makes — in the end — for a more efficient use of our time,” Veren said.

    Veren was born and raised in Marshall County and thinks about the friends and family he has in the area and how he can best keep them safe.

    “It comes down to, ‘What’s killing people here?’ ” he said. “It’s crashes.”

    This story appears in the June 24, 2018 edition of the Iowa Ideas magazine. Find it in The Gazette, or single copies and subscriptions are available for purchase at

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