By: Rosemarie Anderson, FHWA Office of Safety, and Jennifer McCabe, ARA

You may think “the road less traveled” is a safer one, but of all people killed in traffic crashes in 2017, about half died from crashes on rural roads.

To combat this deadly problem, the FHWA is promoting proven, affordable solutions to agencies nationwide.

Many local transportation practitioners may feel they don’t have the money, time, or technical expertise to deploy extensive safety countermeasures on local and rural roads. When applied using a systemic approach, the cost savings can be significant.

FHWA‘s proposed countermeasures, including enhanced signage, pavement markings, speed management techniques, crosswalk enhancements, sidewalks, and road diets, offer significant safety improvements for relatively low investment.

See the Big Picture

Thousands of local and Tribal agencies struggle with improving rural road safety. These unique roads widely vary—straight, winding, paved, unpaved—and may travel through any terrain, from mountains to farmland. Crashes in rural areas tend to be widely dispersed, which can delay emergency response.

In these areas, the key to evaluating where and what to invest in is to use data to prioritize locations and countermeasures that will best mitigate risk.

A systemic approach, recommended by FHWA, evaluates risk across an entire roadway system rather than only looking at specific crash locations. This takes a proactive approach to safety rather than a reactive one. This is especially valuable for rural road systems, where risk may be spread over many miles of roadway, painting a misleading picture of safety due to low crash density.

Low Cost, High Impact

Pavement markings are one of the least expensive countermeasures available to improve safety. They can help drivers stay in their lanes, stop at intersections, become aware of approaching curves or pedestrian crossings, and encourage slowing down.

“Pavement markings can be used to create lane narrowing which makes the driver feel more constrained and slow down,” said Shaun Hallmark, director of Iowa State University’s Institute for Transportation.

The South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) has demonstrated the benefit and affordability of the systemic approach of these countermeasures. SCDOT identified and targeted more than 2,000 locations across the State to receive improvements, mostly in the form of pavement markings and updated signing. The State wanted to reduce frequency and severity of crashes at stop-controlled intersections by alerting drivers to the presence and type of approaching intersection.

“In the past, our typical approach was to treat hot spot locations which may involve a new signal or a left-turn lane,” said Joey Riddle, SCDOT safety program engineer. “The total cost of these projects was roughly half a million dollars. The systemic approach allowed us to treat 80 similar projects for nearly the same price as one.”

A History of Success

Photo shows students walking along the side of a rural road.
Paving the shoulder of a rural road gives pedestrians more room to walk along the rural roadway. (Source: FHWA)

The proposed countermeasures FHWA recommends for these roads come with a proven track record. Basic signing improvements—advanced warning signs, speed plaques, and chevrons—alert drivers to upcoming curves and intersections. A simple 3-year before-and-after analysis of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s (PennDOT) efforts to enhance delineation and make other corrections at curves showed that overall crashes dropped 17 percent, major injury crashes went down 40 percent, and fatal crashes reduced 44 percent.

Did you know that adding edge lines can reduce total crashes by 15 percent and severe crashes by 19 percent? Adding these, or other longitudinal pavement markings, should be considered, even in locations where due to low traffic volumes they may not be required.

“Edge lines are considered especially effective because that is where a driver will tend to look when they are drowsy or trying to avoid the glare from an oncoming car,” said FHWA Transportation Safety Engineer Cathy Satterfield.

Increasing the width of edge lines is another trend that is successfully improving safety on rural roads. In Kansas, Michigan, and Illinois, using 6-inch edge lines in place of standard 4-inch edge lines has reduced non-winter crashes on two-lane rural roads by 15 to 30 percent, and fatal or injury non-winter crashes by 15 to 37 percent.

Low-cost solutions can also combat pedestrian crashes along roadways, where more than 6,000 people are killed each year. Installing sidewalks and paved shoulders can reduce pedestrian-involved crashes by up to 89 percent. Numerous low-cost improvements can also enhance pedestrian safety—crosswalks, pedestrian hybrid beaconsrectangular flashing beacons, medians, pedestrian refuge islands, and road diets.

Learn More

FHWA created a series of six short videos, entitled Low-Cost Safety Improvements, to help practitioners incorporate road safety into their existing responsibilities. In the videos, learn about low-cost safety improvements designed to make stop-controlled intersections, curves, unpaved roads, walking, and biking safer. The videos also highlight the use of pavement markings and speed management techniques to improve safety on a small budget.

To learn more, contact Rosemarie Anderson at