In the decade I’ve lived in the Colorado Rockies, I’ve driven roughly the same over-four-hour-long route dozens of times home from Boulder, where I grew up, without major incident: I-70 to Highway 24 to Leadville; I-70 to Highway 82 to Aspen; I-70 to Highway 133 to Paonia, where I live now.
This trip back in late October seemed to have everything going for it. The weather was crisp and edged gold with 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-, rock- 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 as I began the long descent. It wasn’t until they were close, coming around a curve, that I realized one set of lights was in my lane and approaching fast. I slammed on the brakes and swerved onto the grassy shoulder just in time to clear the windshield-level bumper of a lifted pickup as it swerved back into its own lane.
When I was done panic-shouting, I realized that, all things considered, I’d been forced off the road in the best place possible. A few miles back and I would’ve gone off a cliff. A few miles farther on, and I would’ve hit a vertical rockface. If the shoulder had been steeper, I could’ve rolled. “I swear it’s like you live in The Road Warrior,” a friend remarked after I arrived safely home.
Indeed, there’s very little margin for error on a two-lane mountain highway. Anyone living in the back-corners of the rural West knows this, because even going to the grocery store can involve a multi-mile, suicidal-deer-ridden drive (though fortunately without mohawked pursuers in dune buggies).
Rural areas, according to a comprehensive report released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in August, 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. What’s more, six of the 11 Western states rank in the nation's top 15 for average annual traffic fatality rates, calculated from U.S. Census-compiled, national highway traffic-safety data from 2004 through 2009. Montana tops 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.
Alcohol partly explains this rural carnage: 54 percent of alcohol-impaired drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2011 were in rural areas. Perhaps folks in the hinterlands simply drink more; there’s less to do out here, plus it can get lonely. Public transportation options for getting home from the bar are scant. Cops are sparser and enforcement more difficult along far flung rural roads. Rural folks are also slightly less likely to buckle up.
Meanwhile, the distance to emergency medical care is 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.
Then there’s the fact that the lanes are narrower on roads through the boonies, Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez told National Public Radio in 2009. “You look at trees and ditches. Chances are they're closer … than they would be on an interstate." Combine that with the vagaries of weather and wildlife, as well as the stupid stuff most of us do sometimes—speeding, changing music, texting, reaching for things on the floor—and I’m surprised that I haven’t been run off the road before now.
On the bright side, it used to be a lot worse. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that the number of rural fatalities fell 31 percent between 2002 and 2011. In Colorado, the statewide rate of fatalities per 100 million miles driven dropped from 3.8 in 1977, to just one in 2009, making it one of the least deadly states in the West to drive in. State officials credit the safety gains to modifications to accident hotspots, including wider shoulders, rumble strips, passing lanes and guardrails, as well as to laws that require motorcycle helmets and seatbelts and set stricter limits on blood-alcohol levels. Of course, reducing overly aggressive and inattentive driving remains on Colorado’s improvement to do-list.
Ahem. I’m looking at you, truck driver: Let's leave the crazy to the movies. This isn't Death Race 2013, after all.
This story originally appeared in Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News.