Rural Road Accidents in North Carolina – Facts and Tips for Safe Travel

Driving on rural roads in North Carolina can be a spectacular experience, especially during autumn. But North Carolina roads can also be dangerous, particularly at night or in poor conditions such as during rain and fog.

Unfortunately, North Carolina has the dubious distinction of having the fourth most rural road accident fatalities in the country, behind just California, Texas, and Florida. According to Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data, North Carolina had 745 deaths on rural roads in 2019. That number represents 54% of total road fatalities for North Carolina.

 ALT TEXT: NC ranked 4th in 2019 for rural road fatalities with 745 deaths.

FAST FACT: The North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles defines a “rural crash” as a crash in an unincorporated area or city with fewer than 5,000 people.

For context, California had 1,135 rural road fatalities in 2019, but it has nearly twice the road mileage (396,540) compared to North Carolina (229,011). Texas has 683,533 miles of roads for comparison.

So what makes rural road crashes so deadly?

Driving on Rural Roads: More Dangerous Than You Think

Although we often hear about the awful wrecks that occur on our highways, a study by AAA Carolinas indicates that more traffic deaths in North Carolina occur on rural roads. Although rural roads accounted for a low amount of the vehicle miles traveled, they made up an outsized portion of the state’s traffic fatalities.

And a recent report by NPR indicated that of the nation’s approximately 37,250 annual traffic fatalities, nearly 60% occur on rural roads. In some states, more than 90% of car crash related deaths occur on rural roads.

In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that drivers on rural roads die at a rate of 2.5 times higher per mile they travel than those on urban highways.

Why Rural Roads Are More Dangerous

Here are some common hazards you can expect when driving along North Carolina’s rural roads:

  • Sharp twists and turns, blind turns, steep hills, and dips
  • Poor visibility of road signs, faded roads signs, signs hidden by trees or bushes, and even knocked down
  • Narrower roads which can be harder to maneuver or to pass other vehicles
  • No or low shoulders and sometimes no guard rails
  • A higher risk of crossing wildlife and farm animals
  • Slow-moving vehicles, including farm vehicle crossings (North Carolina is home to some 45,000 farms)
  • Rough pavement, potholes, and uneven surfaces
  • Rocks and other debris
  • Poor lighting and reduced visibility at night and in poor weather

Most Dangerous Rural Counties in North Carolina for Road Fatalities

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services lists 70 of North Carolina’s 100 counties as rural. The rural county with by far the most fatalities in 2020 was Robeson County in southern North Carolina, with 53 traffic fatalities. Harnett and Rowan counties had 36 and 33 fatalities, respectively.

On the other hand, the safest rural county in North Carolina is Washington County, which reported zero traffic fatalities in 2020. Six other counties only tallied one.

Holiday Travel Risks on Rural Roads in North Carolina

During holidays, rural roads can become even deadlier in North Carolina. Many rural roads are narrow, with twists, turns, crests, blind intersections, and unpredictable road conditions. Another risk associated with rural driving during holidays is that more people travel, so those roads have more volume than normal – often with drivers unfamiliar with them.

Holiday Crashes and Fatalities in North Carolina

In North Carolina, the DMV recognizes New Year’s, Easter, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas as holiday periods – usually spanning a weekend. In 2020, holidays proved especially deadly, with 129 of the year’s 1,658 road deaths (8% of total fatalities) occurring in about 22 days of holiday driving (6% of total days in the year).

Safe Driving Tips for Rural Roads in North Carolina (and Elsewhere)

There are things every driver can do to avoid rural road crashes. Some of these rural driving tips will sound like common sense – and they are! You really cannot be too careful.

Gold icon of a car having its oil changed.Be Prepared

  • Make sure your car’s systems, such as brakes, steering, lights, engine, transmission, and so on are in good working condition.
  • Reduce your distractions. Set your cell phone to drive mode or “do not disturb,” use hands-free mode, and set up navigation and music before you set off.
  • Check your fuel or charge level.
  • Check your tires, make sure pressures are correct, and have the right tires for the application (summer performance tires do not work well in wintery conditions, for example).
  • Do not necessarily depend on your cell phone, as there may be little or no signal in some rural areas.
  • Carry an emergency roadside tool kit with things like a spare tire (many modern cars do not have one), a jack and lug wrench, flashlight, roadside flares or beacons, jumper cables, duct tape, a multi-purpose tool, an escape tool, and water at the minimum. Depending on weather conditions where you’re traveling, you might also want to include something to keep warm, a rain poncho, a candle, and a lighter.

Road sign of a swerving car on a slippery road, in gold.Be Alert (and Patient)

  • Obey speed limits.
  • If you want to take a picture, pull over and stop to do so (there are ‘scenic overlooks’ and places to stop on many of the state’s most beautiful drives).
  • Watch for road signs that indicate intersections, highway entrances, road conditions, and other warnings (like farm equipment and wildlife).
  • Watch for wildlife crossing or on the road and be prepared to stop (and check these tips to try to avoid hitting a deer).
  • Reduce your speed in bad weather such as fog, rain, ice, or snow, and keep your headlights on.
  • Avoid using cruise control on roads with twists and turns, as you may not be able to slow the car sufficiently to make sudden corners.
  • Watch out for other drivers who may be swerving, speeding, or driving unsafely.
  • Keep your attention on the road and your hands on the wheel, as obstacles like wildlife, fallen trees and rocks, potholes, and even other vehicles can appear suddenly.

No matter where and when you decide to explore the beauty of North Carolina, be cautious. Wear your seatbelt, build in time for traffic and stops, and be prepared before setting off. Many drivers won’t follow these tips. And if a careless driver injures you, don’t hesitate to call our team.

Jennie R. Glish

About the Author

Jennie R. Glish practices personal injury law in North Carolina at the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin. She was honored on the “Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch” list for Personal Injury Litigation – Plaintiffs by Best Lawyers in America in 2021 and 2022.a She additionally has experience working with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Jennie is a member of the North Carolina Bar Association, the 15B Judicial District Bar, and North Carolina Advocates for Justice.

aFor “Ones to Watch” standards of inclusion, visit bestlawyers.com.