The long and winding (and dangerous) road: Car crashes and the rural West


It was almost a normal drive home. In the nearly 10 years I’ve lived in the Colorado Rockies, I’ve completed variations on the same 4.5-or-so-hour route dozens of times on my way down to the plains and my hometown, Boulder, Colo., without major incident: Highway 24 from Leadville to I-70; Highway 82 from Aspen to I-70; Highway 133 from Paonia, High Country News’ headquarters, to I-70.

This one, on my way back from my nephew’s first birthday party in the last days of October, had pretty much everything going for it. The weather was good, crisp and edged gold with the last aspen and cottonwood leaves. Westbound traffic on I-70 streamed along at a fast clip; winding, two-lane 133 from Carbondale into the West Elk Mountains was pleasantly snow-, rockfall- and elk-free in the deepening twilight. Crossing 8,755-foot-high McClure Pass, I yelled along to a dance tune by The Shoes to stay alert on the last dark stretch of the drive.

To the west, I could see a line of headlights approaching. It wasn’t until they were nearly upon me, coming around a long bend, that I realized one set was in my lane and approaching fast. I slammed on the brakes and swerved off the road into the grass just in time to clear the windshield-level bumper of a lifted pickup, which swerved into its own lane at the head of the pack of cars.

A rockslide on the west side of McClure Pass, just one of many possible hazards on winding Highway 133 in Colorado. Courtesy Colorado Department of Transportation.

When I was done panic-shouting at my steering wheel, I realized that, all things considered, I’d been forced off the road in the best place possible. If it had been on the east side of the pass, I would’ve gone off a cliff. If it had been a few miles farther to the west, I would’ve hit a vertical rockface. If the shoulder had been steeper, I could have easily rolled. “I swear it’s like you live in The Road Warrior,” a friend remarked after I arrived safely home and texted him what had happened.

Indeed, there’s very little margin for error on your typical two-lane highway. You probably know this from experience if you live in the back-corners of the rural West, where even going to the grocery store can involve a windy, multi-mile, suicidal-deer-ridden drive at high speed (though admittedly probably not mohawked pursuers in dune buggies). According to a comprehensive report released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in August, rural areas claimed a whopping 55 percent of all traffic fatalities and 54 percent of fatal crashes in 2011, despite hosting only 19 percent of the U.S. population. From 2002 to 2011, the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled was 2.5 times higher in rural areas than urban.

Six of the 11 Western states fall in the nation's 15 most dangerous states when ranked by average annual traffic fatality rate, calculated with U.S. Census-compiled NHTSA data from 2004 through 2009. Montana claims the dubious honor of the top post on that list, with 2.2 people dead per 100 million miles traveled, while Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming and Idaho claim 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, and 15th respectively.

Part of the rural-urban divide can be explained, perhaps, by alcohol: 54 percent of the alcohol-impaired drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2009 were in rural areas, vs. 46 percent in urban. Maybe folks in the hinterlands simply drink more (there’s less to do, plus it can get lonely out here ... arrest data for Wyoming, one of the most rural states in the Union, seems to support the alcohol-to-rowdiness connection). They certainly have farther to go to get home after drinking, and there are usually few public transportation alternatives to driving. It's also likely that cops are sparser and enforcement more difficult along far-flung rural roads. Rural folks are slightly less likely to buckle up. Meanwhile, the distance to emergency medical care is often farther in rural areas: A much higher percentage of rural drivers died on scene or en-route to the hospital than their urban counterparts in 2011.

And perhaps most importantly, in the boonies, there’s a lot less space on the road to screw up. "That's simply because of the nature of rural highways," Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez told National Public Radio in 2009. "The lanes are much more narrow. You look at trees and ditches. Chances are they're closer to the roadway than they would be on an interstate." Combine that with the vagaries of weather and wildlife, as well as the inherently risky behaviors most of us (including me) engage in at least some of the time speeding, talking on the phone, changing music, texting, reaching for things on the floor, passing like a maniac – and it begins to seem rather surprising that I haven’t crashed or been driven off the road before now. Especially when you consider that Colorado State Patrol has listed the western feeder highway for 133, Highway 92, which winds through a sparsely-populated stretch of clay buttes and farm fields, as one of the most dangerous in the state. Road Warrior, indeed.

On the bright side, things used to be a lot worse. According to the NHTSA, the number of rural fatalities fell 31 percent between 2002 and 20011, and the number of urban fell 15 percent. In Colorado, the statewide rate of fatalities per 100 million miles driven has dropped from 3.8 in 1977 to just 1 in 2009, making it one of the least deadly states in the West to drive in. State officials credit road improvements – including wider shoulders, rumble strips, passing lanes, guardrails and other modifications to accident hotspotsas well as graduated licensing for teenagers, education campaigns, and the passage of laws that required motorcycle helmets and seatbelts and dropped the legal blood-alcohol level. Of course, things like inattentive and aggressive driving are on Colorado’s hit-list for continued improvement. *Ahem* I’m looking at you, truck driver: Let's leave the crazy to the movies. This isn't Death Race 2013, after all.

Sarah Gilman is associate editor of High Country News.

High Country News Classifieds