Officials: Traffic deaths highest in “energy-producing areas”

TEXAS — Almost half of all state traffic deaths come from “energy-producing areas,” the Texas Department of Transportation stated last week in a news release, where trucks and tankers fill once-quiet roads and highways.

Last year, 1,673 people were killed, and more than 6,000 people were seriously injured, in just six regions: the Barnett, Eagle Ford and Haynesville/Bossier shales, as well as in the Granite Wash and the Permian Basin. All are places where “oil and gas exploration is underway,” TxDOT noted.

Those regional numbers are up 4 percent from 2017 — adding to the Lone Star State’s already high road-death figures. Last year, 3,645 people were killed on roads across Texas and another 14,908 were seriously injured, according to TxDOT data.

Failure to control speed is the leading cause of traffic accidents in Texas, followed by driver inattention, according to TxDOT. And the surge in industry traffic makes the problem worse.

“Driving conditions have changed dramatically in many parts of Texas,” James Bass, executive director of TxDOT, is quoted as saying in the news release. “A big increase in the number of heavy trucks and traffic on state and county roads adds to the complexity of driving.”

In addition to creating more traffic, heavy trucks can also damage roads, Adam Hammonds, a TxDOT spokesman, said in an interview.

“When the energy sector comes in and there’s lots of growth in oil and gas production, there’s also population growth and an increase in heavy trucks,” he said. “Some people in these rural areas may not to be used to that.”

Driving in Texas can be particularly dangerous. The last day without a single state road fatality was November 7, 2000 — almost 19 years ago.

In 2017, Texas had more road deaths than anywhere else in the country, with 3,722 people killed, according to the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. While some of that high count can be attributed to the Lone Star State’s large population — Texas is the second-most populous state, after California — the figures are still higher than in the Golden State, which had 3,602 road deaths in 2017. And at 13.1 deaths per 100,000 people, Texas has a higher death rate than the national average of 11.4 deaths per 100,000 — though far lower than some other states in the south and west, including Alabama (19.4) and New Mexico (18.2).

TxDOT will soon kick off its annual “Be Safe. Drive Smart.” campaign. The initiative aims to remind drivers to follow traffic laws (no texting or speeding) and to be cognizant of their surroundings.

One of the campaign’s guidelines could be particularly useful for driving in oil-and-gas regions. “Give large trucks plenty of space,” it states. “Be patient, and pass only when it’s safe to do so.”

The campaign is part of #EndTheStreak, a broader TxDOT campaign to get Texans to care about road safety. The ultimate goal is to reach zero road deaths by 2050 — and hopefully, to have a death-free day in the meantime.