POSTED: Monday, January 7, 2013 - 6:00pm
UPDATED: Monday, January 7, 2013 - 6:14pm
The number of fatal wrecks across East Texas has been declining in recent years, but the area’s rural roads remain far deadlier than its major thoroughfares.
Analysis of data from the Texas Department of Transportation shows more than half of all fatal wrecks in the five-county Longview area since 2007 have involved one vehicle, an indicator that distracted driving may be to blame. In more than 90 percent of the fatal wrecks, one person died. And no wreck since 2007 in Gregg, Harrison, Panola, Rusk or Upshur counties has claimed more than three lives.
The reason, said DPS spokeswoman Jean Dark, is that most East Texas crashes involve one vehicle plowing into a tree after leaving a county or farm-to-market road.
“We have a lot of county roads and FM roads that are heavily traveled,” she said. “On the interstate when there is a crash, it is very rare that it is a single-vehicle crash. But when it is one vehicle and it strikes a tree, a tree doesn’t give like another car would. There is a tremendous amount of pressure on the vehicle’s occupants.”
Because the numbers are relatively low and fatalities occur just about anywhere, Dark said, it’s difficult to predict where a fatal crash might occur or to dub any stretch of road “the deadliest.”
Data shows fatal wrecks since Jan. 1, 2007, have occurred on every major thoroughfare in the five-county area. Furthermore, many stretches of road known as dangerous traffic areas, such as Estes Parkway south of Interstate 20, are no more dangerous than other more common thoroughfares, including sections of U.S. 80, according to the numbers.
In 2007, TxDOT reported 33 fatal wrecks in Gregg County. For 2012, through October, the county had seen 18 highway deaths.
In Harrison County, the number of fatal wrecks has fluctuated from year to year. In 2007, there were 24, but there were 14 in 2010. As of Oct. 31, 12 fatal wrecks had been reported in the county in 2012, and half of those occurred on U.S. 80.
In Rusk County, the number of fatal wrecks has declined each year from 2007, when it tallied 24, through 2011, when the count fell to 12. Rusk appeared unlikely to continue the trend, though, as it had tallied 11 fatal wrecks through October.
Although 54 percent of the total wrecks in the five counties involved one vehicle often leaving the roadway or flipping over, 38 percent involved two vehicles.
Dark said the best shot at continuing to reduce the number of highway deaths is by encouraging drivers to follow traffic laws and pay attention to driving.
“There is a responsibility that is associated with driving. That is why we work so hard to limit distracted drivers,” Dark said. “You can be doing everything right, and one person not paying attention anywhere can change your life.”
On some two-lane county roads, oncoming traffic is divided by nothing more than 18 inches of paint, she said. “And you have to trust that the vehicle coming at you is doing what they are supposed to do.”
Dark said the DPS constantly battles against distracted driving. But, she said, it is a difficult battle to win.
“The problem with it is the people. You can’t force people to pay attention. You can get rid of every distraction and people still might not pay attention,” Dark said.
Fatal wrecks were happening before cell phones and GPS in vehicles were common, Dark said, which indicates drivers can find other ways to focus less on driving than they should.
Across the nation, though, distracted driving is a top cause of traffic deaths.
In Texas, more than 100,000 vehicles were involved in distraction-related crashes in 2009 and, according to the DPS, many of those were caused by texting and driving.
Several bills have been introduced for the legislative session that opens Tuesday aimed at making Texas one of 40 states to ban text-based communication while operating a vehicle.
The Legislature passed a law in 2009 prohibiting use of wireless devices in a school zone. Lawmakers in 2011 passed legislation prohibiting texting while driving, but it was vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry, who called it a governmental overreach.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 5,474 people died in distraction-related crashes in 2009, and at least 18 percent of those distractions were reported to be cell phone usage.