By JUAN PABLO GARNHAM
The Texas Tribune
At 1 a.m. Oct. 11, 52-year-old Sylvia Figeroa lost control of her sedan in Lubbock. At 8 a.m. in Midland County, 44-year-old Gerardo Pérez couldn’t stop in time and collided with a semi towing a tractor. Later, at 11:20 a.m., Nedward Davidson, 62, crashed against a Freightliner truck southeast of Valley Mills. And at 2 p.m., Deputy Matt Jones of the Falls County Sheriff’s Office was struck by a car while helping another vehicle that had slid off the highway.
Figeroa, Pérez, Davidson and Jones all died in their wrecks, according to media reports. They are among the more than 67,000 people that have died on Texas roads since Nov. 7, 2000, the state’s last day with no fatal crashes. Since then, an average of 10 people have died in crashes each day, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. In October alone, there were 249 fatalities.
“I think as a state we’ve become very numb to it,” said Laura Ryan, a member of the Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees TxDOT. “This is probably one of the most deadly situations we have in the state, and it’s one of the most controllable situations we have in the state. Ninety percent of the deaths that we’ve had over the 19 years are preventable.”
Between 2010 and 2018, more people died on roads in Texas than in any other state. There were more deaths here than in California, which has more people and is also a car-centric state. When factoring in population size, 12.7 people per 100,000 residents died in Texas wrecks in 2018. That puts the state in the middle of the pack for per capita road deaths but is still above the national average of 11.2.
“We continue to have a terrible problem in Texas; we have an epidemic of traffic deaths,” said Jay Blazek Crossley, executive director of Farm & City, a safety advocacy group based in Austin. “More families suffer in Texas every day than in the rest of the country, but we believe we can change this.”
Crossley is optimistic because in May, the Texas Transportation Commission established an ambitious goal of ending all road fatalities by 2050. In addition to its regular spending on safety measures, the agency budgeted $600 million in the next two years for widening roads, upgrading guardrails, and improving conditions for pedestrians and cyclists, among other measures.
Here’s a look at what contributes to Texas road deaths and how experts and officials believe Texans can help curb them.
Speeding, failing to stay in a lane, distractions and alcohol are the main contributing factors to fatal crashes. In many wrecks, there can be multiple contributing factors, such as when somebody might be speeding and texting.
But in Texas, fatal crashes in which alcohol played a factor decreased 8.23 percent between 2010 and 2018. In 2010, 34.5 percent of all deadly wrecks involved alcohol. In 2018, the number was 25.7 percent.
“Yes, we’re doing better. And I think that there’s been a lot more awareness about drinking and driving,” Ryan said.
She said she throught ride-sharing companies helped contribute to the decrease. But just because there’s been an 8.8 percentage point drop, that doesn’t mean it’s time to celebrate.
“It’s still 25 percent,” Ryan said. “And that’s still too many.”
While roughly three out of every four Texas crashes happen in cities with 5,000 or more people, more than half of the state’s traffic fatalities happen in rural areas.
“When you look at the crashes on these rural roads, you see higher speeds, you have single lanes going two directions, you have no shoulders,” said Lisa Minjares-Kyle, a researcher at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. “Drivers are given very little room to make any errors, yet are still doing the same things that they would be doing on the freeway.”
But the high number of rural fatalities shows that road improvements are needed throughout Texas, and not just in more populated areas.
“I don’t think this is a rural issue or metro issue. This is a statewide issue,” said Ryan.
Cyclists and pedestrians
Although walking and biking are less common in Texan cities than in many other American metropolises, the number of pedestrians and cyclists here is growing. The number of people killed while walking or biking has increased 40 percent in Texas.
“It’s a growing problem. It is very dangerous to be in a car in Texas than in other places, but the danger of walking or biking has been increasing even more,” said Blazek Crossley.
Blazek Crossley said this comes, in part, from Texas’ “terrible obsession with trying to reduce congestion.”
“We have very smart engineers in Texas, but we have been asking our engineers the wrong question for a long time: How can we increase the speed of travel, the number of cars, and the last priority is how can we reduce danger,” said Blazek Crossley.
Trucks and SUVs
In 2018, 68 percent of the vehicles sold in the U.S. were SUVs or trucks. Many believe this is driving the increase in pedestrian fatalities.
In Texas, heavy vehicles — pickup trucks and SUVs — are involved in more fatal crashes than regular-sized cars, like sedans or coupes. Experts say more weight can make a vehicle deadlier. Blazek Crossley believes a tax on a vehicle’s weight might discourage customers from buying heavier cars, and the revenue could fund road improvements and other safety measures.
“The free-market way to fix this is a fee on weight. You could actually pay for the amount of risk you are introducing to the system,” said Blazek Crossley.
But this might be a difficult sale in this state.
“Texans love their personal liberties,” said Minjarez-Kyle. “And when you start to talk about taxation for these lifestyle choices and you start to talk about penalties, it’s going to be a long, controversial road to travel, unfortunately.”
Disclosure: The Texas A&M Transportation Institute has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
This article was first published at https://www.texastribune.org/2019/11/08/texas-road-deaths-and-suvs-pickups-duis-pedestrians-and-cyclists by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.