The arguments made for maintaining our roads and bridges often relate to the economy; without good transportation links, Maine business will struggle to reach markets. But the safety of drivers on our rural roads is another, critical reason to keep them in good shape.

Maine is fourth in the nation for the percentage of fatal rural crashes, according to 2008 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data, with 90 percent of vehicle deaths occurring on rural roads. Given the rural nature of the state, this does not come as a big surprise, but this grim statistic should spur renewed efforts to keep our non-numbered roads in good repair.

Rep. Mike Michaud, who serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has introduced the High Risk Rural Roads Safety Act. The law is aimed at making it easier for rural states to get funds to improve those roads.

Vehicle fatalities in New England were up 18 percent in 2010, the highest regional increase in the nation. Since New England is one of the earliest settled regions, it makes sense that our narrow, winding and hilly roads would make for more dangerous driving. But again, that does not mean policymakers should accept the danger.

In 2005, Congress created the High Risk Rural Roads program as part of an update of federal transportation policies. The program distributed $90 million annually to all states, which according to Rep. Michaud’s office fell short of needs. In addition, the definition of “high risk rural road” further limited access to funding.

Rep. Michaud’s proposal would distribute $400 million annually to the states and targets rural road safety improvements such as more signs, better pavement markings, guardrails and cable barriers and rumble strips. These improvements cost less than rebuilding roads.

According to Rep. Michaud’s office, travelers are 2.5 times more likely to die on a rural road than on an urban road. Rural roads account for 40 percent of travel, but 56.7 percent of deaths each year occur on them.

Such funding is a reasonable, cost-effective way to improve safety, but it doesn’t let state government off the hook. Roads full of potholes, badly pitched because of multiple asphalt patches and frost heaves, and that are plagued with ice in winter because of poor drainage also contribute to crashes.

“As we work to ensure that our country maintains a modern transportation system, safety must continue to be a top concern,” Rep. Michaud said in announcing his proposal. “In rural states like Maine, where travel options are often limited to roads, roadway safety is even more important. With fatalities on the rise in New England states, the case for acting is even stronger.”