Impaired Driving in Rural Jurisdictions

A closer examination of impaired driving laws, programs and policies in the United States reveals urban centers tend to be better equipped to implement proven strategies to reduce impaired driving as compared to their rural counterparts for a whole host of reasons.

A main challenge inhibiting the discussion of impaired driving in rural jurisdictions has been the inability to adequately define the term “rural jurisdiction.” According to the American Community Survey, approximately 75 million Americans, or almost 25% of the population in the US, reside in rural areas (American Community Survey: 2016). In this instance, “urban” is defined as urban areas and/or groups of urbanized areas having 50,000 or more people and urban clusters having at least 2,500 people but less than 50,000 people. Moreover, both areas should have a core area with a density of at least 1,000 people per square mile. Areas that do not fulfill these requirements are defined as rural. Urban and rural jurisdictions can be modified by states or counties based on their local alignments. Thus, boundaries can be determined by state and local officials in cooperation with each other and approved by the Federal Highway Administration, leading to potential inconsistencies in how rural areas are defined by different states.

Residents of rural areas are more likely to:

  • drive,
  • own multiple vehicles,
  • retain their driving license as they age,
  • not move,
  • possess an advanced degree, although a smaller proportion has a bachelor’s degree, and
  • live below the poverty line (American Community Survey 2011-2015).

According to NHTSA’s 2019 publication on the 2018 fatality data, 44% of all fatal crashes occurred in rural areas (NHTSA 2019).  However, though rural jurisdictions account for nearly half of all fatal crashes, they often receive less funding and input than urban areas when states design and implement their countermeasures.

  1. Lower public awareness and/or concern regarding impaired driving that is manifested in social norms and traditions while reinforcing the acceptability of and misperceptions about the risks associated with driving after drinking.
  2. Drinking and driving campaign messages are primarily tailored for urban areas.
  3. There is limited to no public or alternate transportation options in rural areas.
  4. It is difficult to organize and sustain rural advocacy groups with limited resources and dispersed populations.
  5. Lack of political or agency leadership to support implementation. Agency staff are faced with many competing priorities in the face of lower staffing levels, longer distances and fewer resources. Impaired driving receives less attention because of other pressing issues like health care, education or other types of crime. Also, familiarity with constituents creates a reluctance on the part of elected officials to impose penalties.
  6. Inconsistent consideration and/or lack of representation of rural jurisdictions during the creation of laws, programs and policies. Rural jurisdictions have limited ability to deliver statewide strategies of targeted enforcement, intensive supervision probation, ignition interlock programs, DWI courts, and specific treatment services for impaired driving offenders.
  7. Rural jurisdictions also have limited treatment providers and, thus, treatment options due to limited numbers of clients for desired appropriate approaches. Often this leads to a one size fits all dilemma.
  8. Fragmented authority across agencies and varying levels of independence creates a structure and authority of agencies within rural jurisdictions making it difficult to coordinate activities, share information, and form partnerships. Agencies may be responsible to state, county or city governments.
  9. Staff workload and staff safety in rural areas are affected by large geographical areas and more distance to travel impedes response times and home visits. Agency staff are often responsible for responding to incidents posing all levels of risk and back-up may be several miles away.
  10. Native and Tribal Lands authority can be confusing, making it difficult to determine who can perform what functions in these jurisdictions. There may be gaps in technological and reporting capabilities.
  1. State policymakers should consult with officials and advocates in rural jurisdictions to identify priority issues.
  2. Emphasize proactive/preventive activities. Prevention, education, and advocacy efforts are often the most easily achievable and affordable for rural jurisdictions. Prevention and education activities more frequently generate a higher level of buy-in and support from a broad cross-section of the community and are thereby perceived as less threatening or controversial. Programs in schools provide an important opportunity for prevention messaging, since schools are often at the center of communities and an important contact point for both youth and parents. Engage media to raise the visibility of impaired driving issues and to promote prevention strategies. To help media with messaging, provide scripted materials and resources that can be easily tailored to the local community.
  3. Transition from local to regional approaches and build partnerships. Establish regional task forces where the influence of regional leaders may help to generate greater buy-in and cooperation from local agencies.
  4. Create a continuum of messages and services that uses a systematic approach that considers the audience and uses several points of contact in messaging drivers.
  5. Make sure to engage agencies in strategy and program development. Include agency staff to help ensure programs and policies achieve goals and benefit from support from practitioners.
  6. Provide practitioners with data to demonstrate intervention effectiveness to motivate and get commitment from staff.
  7. Cross-train professionals. Provide staff with opportunities to learn different types of tasks that are outside of their immediate areas of responsibility can serve three important functions. Provide line staff with a broader and different perspective of their role.
  8. Bring services to communities and offenders. A decentralized approach to the delivery of programs and services can increase their accessibility and reduce the need for offenders to drive long distances.
  9. Increase the use of technologies and pharmacotherapies to overcome staffing, resource, and service delivery issues.
  10. Foster partnerships with local organizations and/or transportation companies for assistance in developing alternative transportation resources.