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The Road Less Traveled: Country Driving Vs. City Driving

Nancy Dunham

Your driver’s license and years of behind-the-wheel experience have prepared you to face the difficulties of any road—in theory.

But, driving on city roads offers very different challenges compared to driving on country roads, as urban and rural areas differ on a number of factors. For example, city roads may be well-maintained, but are often congested with vehicles, cyclists, pedestrians, and other obstacles, whereas country roads may be poorly maintained and very isolated.

And the differences don’t stop there. Rural interstates tend to have higher speed limits than urban interstates, and as a result, more serious car crashes. In fact, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), of the 16,710 rural traffic fatalities recorded in 2014, 4,906 fatalities (29%) were speeding-related. The number of deaths may be partially due to the fact that it takes emergency response teams considerably longer to reach crash sites in rural areas than urban areas. For example, it takes under eight minutes in Connecticut but over 35 in Wyoming.

That’s why, if you are headed to an unfamiliar location, being prepared can help keep you safe. But, you don’t need to take a driving course to get ready. Edmunds’ Automotive Editor Mark Takahashi advises that a back-to-basics approach can help you on both rural and urban roads.

Tips for City Drivers on Country Roads

Stay focused. It’s easy to zone out driving on flat, country roads with sparse scenery or traffic. And it’s dangerous. Many car crashes occur on high-speed rural roads—you know, those straightaways in Montana, Texas, and other rural areas that seem to go on forever. Force yourself to sit up straight, look ahead (not at a phone or radio) and watch for hazards, such as wildlife and pulled-over cars, says Takahashi.

Look around. As you look ahead, keep your head “on a swivel,” recommends Takahashi. It’s vital to continuously scan the front, back, and sides of the road. Don’t forget, many country roads also have designated livestock crossings. That means that the road may be blocked so that animals can be herded across. Those that aren’t used to driving on country roads may be caught unaware and have to quickly break to avoid hitting a stray animal. Stay aware of what is ahead of, to the side of, and behind your car.

Watch for “blind” drives. Many rural drivers need to enter traffic “blindly,” without any warning of oncoming traffic, says auto expert Ed Kriston, formerly of AAA Mid-Atlantic. Those that primarily drive in urban areas may forget that foliage, such as trees and shrubbery, can block the view of drivers exiting home driveways. Some homeowners post ‘Blind Drive’ warning signs, but don’t count on that. Swivel your head or lean forward if you have to in order to watch for driveways.

Don’t assume wildlife will stop if they see your car’s lights. Many people assume that deer and other wildlife will stop if they see the car’s headlights. That’s not always true, especially during rutting season, warns Kriston. Drive with caution, especially if there are animal crossing signs posted.

Double-check your car emergency kit. An emergency kit is especially important in rural areas where emergency response is often slow, explains Deborah Trembly of the National Safety Council. ‘Must haves’ include first aid supplies, an ice scraper, snow brush, or spray de-icer, a shovel, a bag of kitty litter or sand, a flashlight, jumper cables, flares, blankets, hand warmers, food, and water, says Kriston. It’s also a great idea to have an extra cell phone battery or a hand-held charger that doesn’t rely on external power.

Tips for Country Drivers on City Roads

Review your car safety equipment. There’s an old saying that automobile owners’ manuals are among the least read books. But, before you head off on your city adventures, take a look through the book to review how your blind spot warning system, adapted cruise control and other safety technologies work, advises Trombley. That’s doubly important in a rental car or other unfamiliar vehicles.

Take a paper map. Those used to driving in the suburbs or more rural areas may find themselves lost if a city’s tall buildings cause the GPS to fail. That’s not to say you shouldn’t use navigation. “If the car has navigation, use it,” says Takahashi. “It’s great to have [a virtual voice] in the car, telling you where to turn.” But, having a back-up is a good idea, too.

Kriston recommends consulting a paper map or obtaining step-by-step instructions online before you leave for your trip. “I do that whenever I’m traveling someplace I’ve never been before,” he explains. “It gives me an idea of where I’m going if the GPS doesn’t work.” Of course, don’t look at your map or paper instructions while driving. Pull over at a safe location to get your bearings before continuing.

Pay attention at intersections. True, maintenance of city roads is generally higher than that of rural roads. And emergency help usually responds faster, too. But knowing these things can lead to a false sense of security. To stay safe on unfamiliar roads, maintain a steady, reasonable speed and take extra caution when turning at intersectionsTakahashi recommends trying to catch the eye of an oncoming driver to ensure they plan to slow or stop to allow you to proceed. If the driver is staring ahead, assume they haven’t seen you and won’t stop.

Allow other drivers to merge. “Be polite,” urges Takahashi. “Slow down and let people merge into traffic. You won’t save time if you block someone out and that [causes] an accident.”

Remember safety at rest stops and in parking lots. “If you are going to pull off at a rest stop to either get your wits about you or use the restroom, make sure to do so safely,” says Alyse Ainsworth of A Secure Life. “Remain alert and take note of the rest stop’s location or name in case of an emergency. Make sure to park in an easily seen area that is well lit.” And, of course, when you park, don’t leave your valuables in sight.

Before you head out for your trip, familiarize yourself with the rules and regulations of driving in that area. And wherever you’re driving, pay attention. All roads have the potential to be dangerous, especially if they’re new to you.

Wherever you’re heading, make sure you have the right car insurance.

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