By Ben Rowley

A road crew in Pleasant Valley remove tree limbs from the roadway. Obstacles like this can be common on rural roads and can be deadly if drivers are distracted. (Courtesy photo)

A road crew in Pleasant Valley remove tree limbs from the roadway. Obstacles like this can be common on rural roads and can be deadly if drivers are distracted. (Courtesy photo)

This is the second in a two-part series on Nevada’s Rural Roads. Part One covered maintenance issues.

There is always a risk of an accident, even a fatal one, when getting behind the wheel, but the risk of death is much higher when traveling on a rural road.

According to a recent report from non-profit TRIP, “traffic fatalities on the nation’s rural roads occur at a rate nearly three times higher than all other roads.” Rural roads accounted for nearly half of the 33,561 traffic deaths in the U.S. during 2012.

Nevada had 49 rural road fatalities in the same year. That was far less than most states. Texas had the highest with 1,509, followed by California with 1,042. Nevada’s rural fatality rate was also below average at 1.72 but still nearly twice as much as all other roadways in the state.

For the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT), it means there is still work to do.

“It is a positive that Nevada’s rural road fatality rate is lower than the national average,” said NDOT public relations official Meg Ragonese. “But the state’s goal is zero fatalities on Nevada roads.”

There has been an uptick in rural fatalities in Nevada this year, according to NDOT. Elko county had eight in the first half of 2014, Lyon county had six, while Eureka and Lander counties each had three and Storey and Churchill county both had one. By this time last year, none of these counties recorded a traffic fatality. Humboldt county had four fatalities in the first half of 2014, compared to one this time last year.

County sheriffs’ offices have the difficult task of informing family members when a loved one is killed in a vehicle crash. Eureka County Undersheriff Keith Logan talked about the impact these rural road accidents can have. He spoke specifically of an accident last year where two construction workers were struck and killed and how such tragedies impact not only the individuals killed and the driver but their families and co-workers as well.

“Each event truly does ripple an effect on an awful lot of people,” he said.

Logan also talked about the volunteer emergency medical technicians and firefighters who serve as first-responders to these accidents. These individuals have the difficult task of rescuing those seriously injured in major accidents. Often they succeed in savings lives. Sometimes they must deal with the heartbreak of seeing a person’s life slip away.

Various factors can play into these fatal accidents, including distracted driving, alcohol or drugs and simply driving too fast.

“If we’d slow down, I think we would all do better,” he said. “Everybody believes that they have better control of their vehicle. Even though they know what the speed limit is, and even though the traffic engineers identify what a safe speed is, people don’t allow enough time to get where they’re needing to go.”

Ragonese said “unbelted and what we call run-off-the-road crashes are an unfortunate and large part of rural road deaths.”

These run-off-the-road accidents are often caused by the driver being distracted in one way or another. There are more than 3,500 distraction-related crashes in Nevada each year and more than 60 deaths over the past five years have resulted from distracted driving, according to NDOT.

Drivers are four times more likely to crash when talking on a cell phone. Since 2012, it has been illegal to have hands on a cell phone while driving in the Silver State. Drivers caught taking on their phones or texting while driving face up to $250 in fines and license suspensions for repeated offenses.

“A lot of it has to do with ‘we want to have everything right now; we want to know something,”’ Logan said. “Quite frankly, reading a text or knowing what someone else is doing while you’re en route to something is not that important.”

But neither the law nor the safety risks have deterred all Nevada drivers from picking up their phones while driving. In a poll on Ely, Eureka, Mesquite, Lincoln County, and Mineral County newspaper websites, 14 percent of respondents said they have used their cell phones or texted while driving over the past year. Other common distractions include talking to passengers, adjusting a music player, eating a meal and fiddling with a navigation system.

Ten percent admitted to driving while drowsy, and few respondents said they had watched a video, did their hair or makeup, or read a book or magazine while driving.

“You talk about being able to multitask,” Logan said. “You may only concentrate on one thing fully at a time.”

He added, “When we’re behind a multiple-thousand pound vehicle, maybe pulling vehicles, we really need to concentrate on the one thing at hand.”

This may be most true on rural roads, which often have inconsistent design features, narrow lanes, long stretches, bad shoulders, poor lighting and wild animals crossing unexpectedly. Plus, many rural highways are two-lanes, making it easy for drivers to veer into violent head-on collisions or to overcorrect, causing rollovers.

New safety enhancements continue to be added to Nevada’s rural roads. About 2,800 miles of centerline rumble strip was installed by NDOT to alert drivers if they begin to leave their lane. The department is also engaged in shoulder widening, installation of T intersections and wildlife safety crossings.

“I think [NDOT] is doing their part,” Logan said. “And I certainly think if the drivers do their part – if people report any type of deficiency that they see promptly, and we get someone working on that right away, so that any kind of issue doesn’t become worse, I think it will all work together.”

But the onus is still on drivers to stay focused on the road, Logan said. “Often times it will still boil down to getting people to safely operate within the guidelines the road was designed for.”

Ben Rowley is a small business owner living in Rural Nevada and is the web editor for Battle Born Media’s publications. His writing focuses on issues related to small town living.