All Roads are Not Created Equal: Tips for Rural vs. Urban Driving

Nancy Dunham

Many drivers believe their behind-the-wheel skills smoothly shift between rural and urban driving.  Your driver’s license and years of behind-the-wheel experience have prepared you to face the difficulties of any road—in theory.But, driving on city roads offers very different challenges compared to driving on country roads, as urban and rural areas differ on a number of factors. For example, city roads may be well-maintained, but are often congested with vehicles, cyclists, pedestrians, and other obstacles, whereas country roads may be poorly maintained and very isolated.

You don’t necessarily need to take a driving course to get ready. Edmunds’ Automotive Editor Mark Takahashi advises that a back-to-basics approach can help you on both rural and urban roads.

Rural Vs. Urban Driving Statistics

First, look at the U.S. population trend. Between 2007 and 2016 those living in urban areas increased 12.7 percent. During the same time, there was an 11.8 percent decrease in those living in rural areas, reported the U.S. Census Bureau.

The number of fatal crashes in those areas shows urban crash fatalities – including those that include motorcycles, scooters, and other vehicles — have skyrocketed. Since 2008 the number of urban crash fatalities increased by 17.4 percent. The number of rural casualties declined by 18.0 percent, during the same period.

The number of urban fatalities was larger than the number of rural fatalities in 2016 and 2017. In 2015 and earlier, rural casualties were larger than urban fatalities.

NHTSA reported they have not thoroughly analyzed the data to assign causes. Here is what is known when comparing data from 2008 to 2017:

  • There was a 46 percent increase in urban pedestrian fatalities; rural areas fatalities decreased by 6 percent.
  • Pedalcyclist fatalities increased 13 percent in urban areas; those in rural areas decreased by 15 percent.
  • There was a 15 percent increase in motorcyclist fatalities in urban areas, compared with a 25 percent decrease in rural areas.

Distracted Driving

You’ve likely heard auto experts describe cars as computers on wheels. Initially, that sounds positive. Yet the increase in technology has paralleled an increase in car crash fatality rates in recent years.

That seems at odds with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration(NHTSA) statistics showing a 1.8 percent decrease in fatal car crashes in the U.S. between 2017 and the previous year. Aren’t we safer in our cars now than in the past? The short answer is no.

“I think listening to music and doing whatever we do that distracts us – and I include myself in this group – is the cause of many crashes,” said racing legend Johnny Unser, who is now a technical advisor for Cooper Tire and race director for Pro Mazda. “It’s important to keep both hands on the wheel and your vision on the road. About the time you take a quick peek at your smartphone a child runs in front of your car or a car in front of you stops.”

As Unser indicated, the issue of distraction has moved beyond talking on telephones to voice controls, music options, email alerts, text messages, electronic maps, and even social media. Those distractions are even more dangerous when drivers travel down unfamiliar roads or terrains.

7 Tips for Driving on Country Roads

It’s easy to zone out driving on flat, country roads with sparse scenery or traffic. And it’s dangerous. Many car crashes occur on high-speed rural roads—you know, those straightaways in Montana, Texas, and other rural areas that seem to go on forever. Consider these tips if you are headed to a country road.

1. Stay focused.

Force yourself to sit up straight, look ahead (not at a phone or radio) and watch for hazards, such as wildlife and pulled-over cars, says Takahashi.

2. Look around.

As you look ahead, keep your head “on a swivel,” recommends Takahashi. It’s vital to scan the front, back continuously, and sides of the road. Don’t forget, many country roads also have designated livestock crossings. That means that the road may be blocked so that animals can be herded across. Those that aren’t used to driving on country roads are often caught unaware and have to quickly break to avoid hitting a stray animal. Stay aware of what is ahead of, to the side of, and behind your car.

3.Watch for “blind” drives. 

Many rural drivers need to enter traffic “blindly,” without any warning of oncoming traffic, report AAA experts. Those that primarily drive in urban areas may forget that foliage, such as trees and shrubbery, can block the view of drivers exiting home driveways. Some homeowners post ‘Blind Drive’ warning signs, but don’t count on that. Swivel your head or lean forward if you have to watch for driveways.

4.Don’t assume wildlife will stop if they see your car’s lights. 

Many people believe that deer and other wildlife will stop if they see the car’s headlights. That’s not always true, especially during rutting season, report AAA experts. Drive with caution, especially if there are animal crossing signs posted.

5. Double-check your car emergency kit. 

An emergency kit is especially crucial in rural areas where emergency response is often slow, explains Deborah Trombley of the National Safety Council. ‘Must haves’ include first aid supplies, an ice scraper, snow brush, or spray de-icer, a shovel, a bag of kitty litter or sand, a flashlight, jumper cables, flares, blankets, hand warmers, food, and water, recommend AAA experts. It’s also a great idea to have an extra cell phone battery or a hand-held charger that doesn’t rely on external power.

6. Beware “rough” roads. 

The potholes on urban roads are often nothing compared to the jags, juts and bumps on rural road. Many rural areas purposely keep roads “rough,” with crushed stone and other materials, to slow traffic. Beware of major bumps and flying gravel.

7. Watch for “quick-stop” areas. 

Are you driving out to the country to hike in a pristine area or enjoy a roadside stand? Chances are other drivers are doing the same thing. Drive slowly and prepare for vehicles to suddenly stop so as to access these attractions.

7 Tips for Driving on City Roads

True, maintenance of city roads is generally higher than that of rural roads. And emergency help usually responds faster, too. But knowing these things can lead to a false sense of security. Consider these tips if you are headed to a city road.

1. Review your car safety equipment. 

There’s an old saying that automobile owners’ manuals are among the least read books. But, before you head off on your city adventures, take a look through the book to review how your blind spot warning system, adapted cruise control and other safety technologies work, advises Trombley. That’s doubly important in a rental car or other unfamiliar vehicles.

2. Take a paper map.

Those used to driving in the suburbs or more rural areas may find themselves lost if a city’s tall buildings cause the GPS to fail. That’s not to say you shouldn’t use navigation. “If the car has navigation, use it,” says Takahashi. “It’s great to have [a virtual voice] in the car, telling you where to turn.” But, having a back up is a good idea, too.

3. Pay attention at intersections. 

To stay safe on unfamiliar roads, maintain a steady, reasonable speed and take extra caution when turning at intersections. Takahashi recommends trying to catch the eye of an oncoming driver to ensure they plan to slow or stop to allow you to proceed. If the driver is staring ahead, assume they haven’t seen you and won’t stop.

4. Allow other drivers to merge.

“Be polite,” urges Takahashi. “Slow down and let people merge into traffic. You won’t save time if you block someone out and that [causes] an accident.”

5. Remember safety at rest stops and in parking lots.

“If you are going to pull off at a rest stop to either get your wits about you or use the restroom, make sure to do so safely,” says Alyse Ainsworth of A Secure Life. “Remain alert and take note of the rest stop’s location or name in case of an emergency. Make sure to park in an easily seen area that is well lit.” And, of course, when you park, don’t leave your valuables in sight. Before you head out for your trip, familiarize yourself with the rules and regulations of driving in that area. And wherever you’re driving, pay attention. All roads have the potential to be dangerous, especially if they’re new to you.

6. Buy or rent a car that suits the area.

If you’re thinking about renting a car for your trip, select a car that is small and will fit down crowded streets and into tight parking spaces. An oversized SUV might feel comfy, but it’ll be tough to maneuver and park in a busy urban city, reminds the experts at Edmunds.

7. Stay in your lane. 

Rapid-fire lane changes are standard in urban areas. Many drivers realize they only save them a few seconds and boost their chance of a crash. When driving on urban roads and highways, stay in your lane, recommends Edmunds’ experts.

In conclusion, it’s always important to take caution when driving, but it’s especially so in unfamiliar areas. Statistics show that doing otherwise can cause crashes that are often tragic. Being prepared can help keep yourself and your passengers safe.

Can you answer ‘yes’ to any of the following questions?

  • Are you a parent or grandparent of a teen driver?
  • Are you planning an upcoming road trip?
  • Are you a proud car owner looking for tips to keep yourself and your loved ones safe?

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