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John Hood

RALEIGH — The latest ratings of highway systems are out — and for North Carolina, the news is mixed. In general cost-effectiveness, our state’s roads and bridges rank a bit better than average. We fare well on some measures. But when it comes to the safety of rural roads, North Carolina comes in next-to-last.

I got this information from the latest report on state roads and bridges published by the California-based Reason Foundation. In various forms, this annual study has provided comparative data to legislators, state policymakers, and others interested in getting the best bang for every buck invested in our primary form of surface transportation.

For North Carolina, the top finding isn’t particularly exciting: we’re number 17! In overall cost-effectiveness, our state’s ranking declined from 14th in the previous study.

That’s still better than North Carolina used to rank in these reports. Bipartisan reforms enacted over the past decade or so have improved our system’s performance. The state spends a greater share of its revenue from gas and car taxes on roads and bridges today than it did before. And those spending decisions are now based more on objective criteria and less on political pull thanks to changes enacted during the administration of previous Gov. Pat McCrory.

Although it might not seem like it, North Carolina appears to have done a better job than the average state in coping with rising congestion in urban areas. Back in the 2000s, we routinely ranked near the bottom. In the most recent Reason report, North Carolina was close to the median (23rd) in urban congestion, although some of the apparent improvement may reflect a change in measurement tool. Our state has also shown improvement in the pavement condition of our interstates.

Unfortunately, North Carolina ranks 49th in fatality rates on our rural highways. This is the first time the report has separated out urban and rural rates, although it does provide three years of data for comparison. Alas, our rural fatality rate got worse over time.

The problem can’t be attributed to pavement conditions on rural highways. North Carolina is about average in that regard. So, what’s causing our high fatality rate and what can be done about it?

A Centers for Disease Control study published a couple of years ago suggested that lower rates of seat-belt use help to explain higher fatality rates for automobile crashes in rural areas. Other possible factors include higher rates of drunk and distracted driving, higher average speeds, and lower average incomes (less-affluent drivers may be operating older cars with fewer safety features or in poor repair).

But while these factors may explain disparities between urban and rural fatalities in general, it’s not clear to me that North Carolina presents an especially high-risk mix. Other states seem to have higher drunk-driving rates and lower household incomes in rural areas, for example.

I’m also not sure the causal relationships are all that well-established, yet. According to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics, alcohol is no more a factor in rural crashes than in urban ones. These same statistics do show, however, that lack of seatbelt use plays a larger role in rural fatalities than for urban ones, particularly for pickup trucks.

Although there may be no obvious course of remedial action yet, North Carolina clearly has a significant problem with highway fatalities in rural areas. I think the issue deserves more research, perhaps even a legislative study commission or some other means of focusing policy resources and public attention.

Automobility is the main way North Carolinians get around. That’s unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. As our state continues to grow and develop, we will need to have transportation revenue and expenditure systems that keep up with demand and produce high value for every dollar invested. As much as possible, they should follow the benefit principle: the more you use, and the more you use during periods of peak demand, the more you should pay. And safety should be a high priority.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN” on UNC-TV.

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