Special Report: Fatal Accidents On The Rise During Oil Boom

By Geena Martinez
NewsWest 9

WEST TEXAS - Everyday West Texas drivers get behind the wheel but not everyone makes it to their destination. It seems just about every week we hear of another fatal accident, one that may have affected you or someone you know.

It can happen in the blink of a eye. A car pulls out in front of you, a truck has a blowout, drivers simply not paying attention. All are things that can end in tragedy.

For countless commuters in the Basin, car accidents have become their biggest fear.

"It is troublesome for us," Gene Powell with the Odessa District for TxDOT, said. "I think it's attributed to the number of people who have moved into our area and the amount of traffic we do have."

Powell says more people means more accidents.

"The roads haven't changed so it's nothing necessarily to do with the roads themselves. It's just the people driving on the roads," Powell said.

NewsWest 9 wanted to see if the fatal crashes have increased since the oil boom started taking off.

NewsWest 9 requested crash statistics from TxDOT for six counties in our area: Ector, Midland, Martin, Howard, Andrews and Ward counties.

All of these counties have major roads including Interstate 20, Highway 349 and F.M. 1788.

In 2007, there were a total of 59 fatal crashes for those counties. Ector and Midland County tied with 23 fatal accidents. Howard County saw six fatal accidents and Andrews had five. Ward County had two and Martin County had none. A total of 65 people were killed in all of 2007.

But fast forward to 2011 and the numbers go up in some counties.

Andrews jumped from five to 12 fatal crashes. Ward County spiked from two to five fatal accidents and Martin County went from zero accidents in 2007 to five deadly collisions in 2011. That's 77 fatal crashes resulting in 86 deaths in these counties for 2011.

"The number of fatal wrecks is only up about 10%-11% but the number of people who have died is up almost 20%" Powell said. "We're seeing more wrecks that cause two, three and four people to die in a single wreck which is unusual."

That trend seems to be true for this year as well.

Since January, there have been 70 fatal accidents resulting in 87 deaths, and with two more months left in 2012, there's bound to be more.

"A tremendous number of them are single vehicle accidents, roadway departures," James Beauchamp with the Midland/Odessa Transportation Alliance, said.

The Midland/Odessa Transportation Alliance says injury accidents are up 17%. Beauchamp said the Basin's roads are getting congested.

"We have what is termed in the engineering world as an immature transportation system," Beauchamp said.

That means it's not a fully developed system but both men said the accidents aren't just oilfield related.

"It's texting and driving or talking on a cell phone or putting on makeup or eating," Powell said. "I've even seen people reading a book and driving."

Across the state, 46% of people who have died in fatal crashes were not wearing seatbelts.

That trend has been seen here, however, improvements are being made to keep drivers safe.

We're told rumble strips are being installed on more roads across the area.

"We think that's tremendous," Beauchamp said. "That's about a 70% reduction in roadway departures."

You can expect new signal lights at Faudree and 191, Faudree and Eastridge and in other spots.

"A new signal at 2nd and Grant in Odessa, flashing beacons at Yukon and West Loop 338," Powell said. "We're putting in lights at 158 and 715 off of I-20 in Midland."

Some big changes are on the way for Highway 349.

"We're taking that road from two lanes to four lanes so that obviously will increase safety," Powell said.

"Having a fully improved eight foot shoulder on those roads is the number one thing you can do for safety and Highway 349 didn't have those shoulders," Beauchamp said.

But the safety starts with drivers and officials are reminding everyone to drive smart.

"We don't want more people dying in the meantime and we realize if drivers will empower themselves, they can make that change today," Beauchamp said.