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The objectives of the study are to understand road safety within the context of regional development processes and to assess how urban–rural categories represent differences in motor vehicle occupant fatality risk. We analysed 2015 motor vehicle occupant deaths in Wisconsin from 2010 to 2014, using three definitions of urban–rural continua and negative binomial regression to adjust for population density, travel exposure and the proportion of teen residents. Rural–Urban Commuting Area codes, Beale codes and the Census definition of urban and rural places do not explain differences in urban and rural transportation fatality rates when controlling for population density. Although it is widely believed that rural places are uniquely dangerous for motorised travel, this understanding may be an artefact of inaccurate constructs. Instead, population density is a more helpful way to represent transportation hazards across different types of settlement patterns, including commuter suburbs and exurbs.