By Chris Umscheid
OAKDALE– Who would’ve thought that driving down Iowa’s secondary roads would be considered a dangerous activity?
“It’s the most dangerous road system we have,” said Jan Goldsmith, formerly with the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau.
Statistically, a driver is twice as likely to be involved in a crash on a rural or secondary road than on the interstate or in an urban area. For a teenage driver, the risk is up to three times as high. Gravel roads are even more notorious, with the risk of a crash seven times higher than on the interstate system, and with higher odds of a crash causing a fatality.
There are a multitude of reasons for the ominous statistics, and some fairly simple ways to mitigate the hazards.
A typical Iowa secondary road has little or no shoulder, narrow lanes, steep hills, fewer or missing traffic signs, narrow bridges, sharper curves, less maintenance, rough surfaces, limited sight distance, blind driveways, no street lights and intersections without stop signs.
In addition, many also have “T” intersections. The gravel roads often have loose gravel, wash boarding conditions, no center line or edge markings, even less signage, seasonal/weather related roadbed changes and vision-obscuring gravel dust.
Both types of roads often also have deep ditches alongside them. Trees and bushes, utility poles, mail boxes and signs close to the right-of-way and standing crops or weeds can obscure the view at intersections.
And then, there are the other users of the roadway: farm machinery, large trucks, ATVs (legally, ATVs can only be operated on roads for work purposes), rural mail carriers, horses and buggies in Amish areas, school buses and bicyclists.
To safely navigate these roads, a little common sense is called for.
“If people would just slow down, it would be a big help,” said Eileen Fisher, the Associate Director for Iowa’s Center for Agricultural Safety and Health (I-CASH). Although the speed limit on gravel roads is 55 mph, she noted many of the accidents are due to people generally driving too fast for the conditions. The Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) has several rural road driving tips, and most start with the words “slow down.”
Also typical in an accident on these roads is the failure of people to wear seat belts. In a rollover, common among single-vehicle accidents on rural roadways, the driver and/or other occupants are often ejected either completely or partially. Death and serious injury are common with ejections.
And then there are the farmers with their tractors, combines and implements. In 2010, according to the IDOT, 208 crashes occurred on Iowa roadways involving farm machinery. Kelley Donham, Director of I-CASH, broke the numbers down to 106 on secondary roads with six fatalities.
“It’s a growing problem,” Donham said, noting that fewer farmers have resulted in the consolidation of land into bigger farms with fields more spread out, which increases travel times between field and farm. Also, more non-farmers are living in rural areas, increasing traffic on traditionally low-density roadways, and putting them on a collision path with ag producers.
Farm machinery has been made bigger in recent years, and the larger size combined with narrow roadways and impatient drivers can have tragic consequences. Farmers often move as far to the right as they can on roads with little to no shoulder or even soft shoulders, which puts them at risk of being pulled into the ditch. However, the farmer also often needs to move to the center of the road to avoid mailboxes, bridge railings, signs, etc. For a driver attempting to pass, these movements can result in disaster.
“People need to have patience around farm machinery,” Goldsmith said.
Newer equipment often has an array of flashing warning lights in addition to the traditional Slow Moving Vehicle (SMV) emblem– a red reflective triangle with a fluorescent orange center. Many accidents have occurred when a driver fails to see a farmer signal a left turn while moving to the right in order to make a wide enough turn. A motorist trying to pass often ends up “T-boning” the tractor in this situation.
Other times, a driver will ignore a no-passing zone, and try to get around machinery. Fisher pointed out that even if the farmer waves the driver around, it is illegal to pass in such zones.
While it is often the car driver being injured or even killed in such crashes, I-CASH sees these collisions as a significant risk to farmers, and in keeping with their mission to reduce death and injury to farmers, I-CASH has partnered with several other organizations to produce an educational video.
“It’s Preventable,” is the theme behind I-CASH’s effort, and the DVD entitled “Rural Road Crashes– They’re Preventable” is the product. Working with IDOT, the Iowa State University Institute for Transportation, the Great Plains Center for Agricultural Health and the Iowa Traffic Safety Alliance, the DVD has been made available to all drivers’ education instructors in the state as well as all 99 county sheriffs, county Extension offices, the Iowa State Patrol Community Education Officers and Iowa Emergency Medical Services (EMS) providers.
Additionally, the video is available for driver training for school bus drivers as well as other businesses with employees driving on rural roadways. As an example, the Pioneer Seed Company requested the DVD for its own in-house driver training.
I-CASH has been looking at rural roadway safety since 2006, seeing it as a high priority. A farmer came up with the idea of a card that could be distributed to the public with safe driving tips. Ultimately, 75,000 were produced, with one side for drivers and the other for farm machinery operators. Having blanketed the state, the cards are available at drivers license stations as well as online.
Ultimately however, it comes down to the individual driver being aware of their surroundings, and being patient.
“Crashes are preventable,” Goldsmith said. “Almost every single crash can be prevented in one way or another.”
To view the video on-line: http://www.iowadot.gov/mvd/ods/RuralRoadCrashes.html 
For more information: http://www.dps.state.ia.us/commis/gtsb/pdfs/2010_ItsPreventable.pdf