Rural roads can be curvy, dangerous for inexperienced motorists

Monday, October 29, 2007

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- The eight-mile drive home for Taylor Stobaugh through rural southern Buchanan County was deceptively tranquil.

Cows, houses, barns and corn fields passed her white Ford F-250 as it hugged the curvy, two-lane country roads.

Traffic safety officials say rural commutes such as the 17-year-old's can be the least forgiving for young, inexperienced drivers.

Her school, Mid-Buchanan High School in Faucett, Mo., has lost two of its students in automobile crashes since 2003, Mid-Buchanan Superintendent John James said. "You don't have a lot of room for error out here," James said.

Though more young driver crashes occurred in urban areas than rural in 2006, more than 70 percent of the youth killed in traffic collisions were in accidents on rural roads, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Almost half of the fatality wrecks were preceded by the young driver, most often male, either exceeding the speed limit or driving too fast for the conditions.

Patrol Sgt. Sheldon Lyon said inattention -- the leading cause of all wrecks -- is particularly potent on rural roads.

"A lot more attention is necessary on any curvy road," Lyon said. "If a tire goes off the road, there is a tendency [for young motorists] to overcorrect and shoot off the left side of the roadway."

Seat belt use in rural areas is of particular concern. Student data from Northwest Missouri high school surveys in the past three years show seat belt use at rural schools in the high 20 percent to low 30 percent range. Students in urban schools wear their seat belts more than 60 percent of the time, he said.

Lyon said that while congestion in urban areas slows traffic, drivers can legally drive high speeds on rural roads.

The speed limit was 55 mph at the intersection of Missouri routes H and M, a bumpy two-lane road near Mid-Buchanan High School, where a 17-year-old student overturned her vehicle last school year.

Lonnie Sands, 16, and his brother were the first on scene.

The classmate said she had hydroplaned, though the road was dry, and she thought she had been traveling the speed limit, he said.

"Anytime you've got a combination of young drivers and inexperience and narrow roads, you'll have accidents," Sands said.

Stobaugh said rural road dangers become more prevalent among upperclassmen due to the tendency to bunch into one vehicle as a result of the social stigma attached to those who ride the school bus.

In a few years, Dan Smith's 13-year-old grandson Skyler will want to get behind the wheel for the school day commute from St. Joseph to Faucett. But he says he worries about the narrow roads that tend to be "too hilly and blindy" and corners that come up "real quick."

He also worries of the increasing dependence of country kids to be "one-block-away drivers" -- like their urban counterparts.

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