Motor-vehicle collisions are becoming less frequent, but fatal motor-vehicle collisions are on the rise, according to 2020 data shared by the Alabama Department of Transportation, with rural areas experiencing a disproportionate number of the fatalities.
Tallapoosa County is no rural exception. Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) recorded 665 motor-vehicle accidents in the county last year, resulting in 238 people injured and 11 fatalities.
Last year's death toll was only slightly more than typical. From 2016 to 2020, an average of nine people died in a car accident each year within Tallapoosa County limits, a rate of 22 fatalities per 100,000 residents.
Annual crash fatality rate
per 100,000 people
per 100 million miles
Data provided by ALDOT and the Federal Highway Administration
With 11 fatalities per 100,000 people nationwide, according to 2019 federal data, that makes Tallapoosa County about twice as deadly when it comes to driving. The state average is only slightly better with 19 lives lost per 100,000 in 2019.
Highways vs. byways
Each year, ALDOT's Drive Safe Alabama initiative and the University of Alabama's Center for Advanced Public Safety (CAPS) partner to compile Crash Facts, a tome of data detailing the state's 100,000-200,000 motor-vehicle collisions that occur each year.
According to Crash Facts, population density is a big indicator. Rural collisions accounted for 59 percent of the crash fatalities in 2019, despite more than three-quarters of all collisions taking place in urban areas. And while most urban collisions occurred in business or shopping districts, 82 percent of rural crashes took place in open country.
Tallapoosa County crashes recorded by ALEA, 2016-2020
Data provided by Crash Facts 2016-2019 and ALDOT
In other words, while a driver is more likely to get into a fender-bender in city traffic, they're more likely to see their life flash before their eyes on an ill-lit, winding highway.
"If you think about how the roads sometimes curve and the conditions that you're driving on in a rural area are a little bit different, as opposed to putting your car on cruise control at 60-65 on an interstate," Drive Safe Alabama coordinator Allison Green said. "The landscape of a rural road takes more of your attention."
A 2018 University of Minnesota study identifies a number of other risk factors. Rural areas have fewer public transportation services, leading to more people on the road who shouldn't be, and less traffic, leading to higher speeds. Rural drivers are also more likely to drive older cars, often with outdated safety features, and according to the CDC, are simply less likely to wear their seatbelt.
Driving under the influence
Not only was Tallapoosa County affected by its rural-ness in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic. A University of Alabama CAPS study found that across the state, accidents have been fewer but deadlier since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, with an overall decline in driving offset by an increase in speeding, impaired driving and aggressive driving. As such, despite a 10 percent a 10 percent reduction in crashes from the first half of 2019 to the first half of 2021, fatal crashes rose by 1 percent.
"Aggressive driving was significantly higher over the COVID-19 period, and this was thought to be the result of drivers’ frustration with the imposed restrictions," CAPS researcher Dr. David Brown said in a statement about the study. "Once those restrictions were relaxed, it was expected that this factor would diminish, but it continues, so this might also be considered a holdover from the COVID period."
Tallapoosa County crashes by location, 2020
Data provided by ALDOT