Only about 20% of Americans live in rural areas, but that’s where 30% of driving and 45% of fatal traffic accidents happen.
Montana State University recently hosted a webinar to address that issue, welcoming lawmakers and experts from across Montana and the nation. They pointed out challenges ranging from wildlife crossings to distances from hospitals. But they found that personal choices and rural culture play big roles, too. For example, rural drivers are less likely to use a seatbelt.
"In some communities we still have belief systems that make them think it's not worth wearing a seatbelt," said Nic Ward, director of MSU’s Center for Health & Safety Culture.
Ward’s center recently surveyed residents in six rural Utah counties, and found that 78% wanted their loved ones to buckle up – even if they didn't use seatbelts themselves.
"And indeed you could argue that ruralness itself comes with this sense of helping each other and wanting people in your community to be safe," Ward said.
Identifying that positive aspect of rural culture helped his group form a way to tackle the not-so-helpful lack of seatbelt use there. They created an ad campaign to remind people that they're someone's family and part of a community that wants them to get home safe.
Ward said the findings were promising. The number of people who wanted their loved ones to wear seatbelts increased to 86%. And the number of people who said they made sure everyone else in the car wore a seatbelt increased from 52% to 58%.
"Bottom line is, of course, does this actually impact behavior itself?" he asked. "We found that observed seatbelt use went up 20% in these rural counties as a result of all the things we did in this project. Whereas the control site that didn’t have these campaigns only went up 7%."
A recent study even showed that this type of outreach may help encourage mask-wearing during the coronavirus pandemic – by telling people to do it for others instead of themselves.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.