Bedford’s high fatal rate unclear

BEDFORD – Wreck your car on a Blair County road, and the chance you’ll be killed is 1.38 percent, according to PennDOT 2012 statistics.

But if you cross the border into Bedford County before crashing, that likelihood nearly doubles: There’s a 2.54-percent chance the wreck will end in a fatality.

PennDOT numbers from the past three years clearly indicate that, while most surrounding counties have seen minor declines, Bedford County’s fatality-to-crash ratio has gradually climbed past all others in west-central Pennsylvania.

Police, emergency officials and PennDOT representatives have offered a collection of possible reasons for the difference – it remains unclear whether heavily trafficked highways, mountainous topography or rural driving habits are to blame.

“We have the turnpike, [Interstates] 70, 30, 99, 220 – fairly major roads. And not just one of them,” county Emergency Management Director Dave Cubbison said Tuesday.

Many of the most dangerous crashes take place on high-speed roads frequented by tired cross-country travelers, Cubbison said. While wrecks aren’t necessarily more common on major highways, high speeds can make them deadlier.

“It’s kind of like the autobahn,” Cubbison said, referring to Germany’s intercity highways that lack enforced speed limits. “Hey, there’s only two or three accidents a day on the autobahn. But some of our [victims] walk away. Everybody’s dead on the autobahn.”

But the assumption that the turnpike contributes to Bedford’s high death rate might be false: Last year, only two of the county’s 17 vehicle deaths occurred on the tolled, cross-state route, PennDOT regional spokeswoman Pam Kane said.

And, according to PennDOT statistics, Bedford’s death rate has climbed while those in neighboring Somerset and Fulton counties, both along the turnpike, have dropped. In fact, a crash is more likely to end in a fatality in Bedford than in any turnpike-hosting county from Harrisburg to the Ohio border.

Mountainous terrain and bad weather contribute to the dangers, Cubbison stressed, especially on interstate highways that cross the Appalachians. Many serious accidents occur on Interstate 70 south of Breezewood, where rain and ice slick the mountainside road, he said.

“There are some variables that won’t change,” he said.

At least one variable can change, experts said: the cultural tendency toward risky driving in counties like Bedford.

Driving under the influence seemingly isn’t to blame – Bedford County’s per-capita drunken driving rate is among the state’s lowest, according to the Uniform Crime Reporting System.

But rural drivers tend to ignore seat belt laws, Kane said, turning otherwise minor crashes into fatal ones. Of 17 motorists killed last year, nine weren’t secured by a seat belt.

“It’s an unfortunate fact,” she said. “The more rural the county, the less seat belt use there is.”

Increased seat belt use is almost universally correlated with reduced fatalities, Kane said.

Bedford County accidents are roughly split between major highways and country roads, but those “just going into town” are less likely to bother with seat belts, said Trooper Matt Bonin of the Bedford state police.

“I see in some of the small towns in the corners of the county, some people don’t even properly strap in their children,” Bonin said. “They think they’re only going a short distance.”

Cubbison attributed the trend to both a more relaxed attitude and a less visible police presence. While it can be difficult to drive from Hollidaysburg to Altoona without seeing at least one police cruiser, a motorist can travel from one Bedford County border to another without ever spotting one.

The only way to change the effect on fatality statistics is to educate the county’s future drivers from a far earlier age, Cubbison said. With very young drivers comprising an outsize portion of traffic deaths, a cultural shift could be the only thing that changes their crash numbers.

“There’s definitely a paradigm shift in an urban to a rural setting. … You go out into rural America, you’re going to see that your police presence appears to be much less,” Cubbison said. “People tend think, ‘I’m out here – nobody’s going to catch me.'”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.