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Using Traffic Control Systems to Create Safer Rural Roads

The benefits of using traffic control systems in rural areas are becoming increasingly apparent as research into the topic expands.  The usefulness of these systems in highly congested urban areas has long been established.  In lightly populated parts of the United States, however, a lack of formal studies has impeded the installation of effective speed controls.


This is unfortunate, for rural communities face unique challenges when it comes to traffic management.  This is due to the fact that the main road in many smaller towns also serves as a state highway outside the community.  Within town, this street is usually where food markets, banks, schools, churches, post offices, and other institutions are located.


Drivers are expected to curb their speed as they approach these small communities, but often they fail to do so.  The results are frequently tragic, as vehicles driving highway speeds collide with street-crossing pedestrians simply going about their daily business. 

The traditional traffic control systems used in rural locales include increased law enforcement efforts.  However, these campaigns strain the resources of rural police departments, while having only a temporary calming effect on motorists.  Such efforts also feed stereotypes of small communities as “speed traps.”


A better solution is to install traffic control measures in the transition zones between wide-open country areas and town limits.  This approach has been in place in most European countries for many years, but it is just now gaining acceptance in the United States.  Some of the measures that have proven particularly effective include the following.

  • Transverse markings – These are pairs of parallel bars painted directly on the inside edges of the road surface.  The distance between the pairs shortens as the vehicle approaches town limits.  For drivers, this creates the perception that their car is going faster and faster, causing them to take active steps to reduce their speed.
  • Speed feedback signs – These electronic devices display the actual speed of the approaching vehicles along with the posted legal limit.  These signs serve as “friendly reminders” to drivers to slow down.
  • Painted center islands and edge markings – These cause drivers to slow down by making it appear that the road ahead narrows in width.  In one test of this approach, a 40-foot wide roadway was painted with an island and edge markings.  These reduced the apparent width of the lanes on each side of the yellow line from 16 to 11 feet.
  • Shoulder widening markings combined with speed limit postings on the road surface – These efforts are similar to the center island approach discussed above, in that painted lines on the road shoulders create the impression of a narrowing roadway.  To reinforce the message, the posted speed limit is inscribed directly on the street.
  • Speed tables – These are similar to speed bumps used in residential areas.  They differ in being wider and lower to the ground than speed bumps, so the traffic calming effect is not as pronounced.  The intention is not to slow traffic to a near-crawl (as with speed bumps) but simply to reduce it to a more appropriate level.
  • Center islands marked by flexible traffic bollards – These create a high-visibility approach to traffic control.  They’re especially effective when combined with additional speed limit signs at the entrance to the bollard-marked area. 


While all of the above efforts have significant traffic calming effects, studies have demonstrated that some are more effective than others.  This report created by the US Federal Highway Administration gives full details.  The point of this article isn’t to prescribe a “one-size-fits-all” approach to rural traffic control systems, but to discuss a variety of measures that local communities can use to meet their individual needs.