“Death Highway” is Causing Concern Over Oil & Gas Traffic

It may seem obvious to some who drive in some parts of the state, but according to a recent survey, some of the most dangerous highways can be found right here in Texas. Using data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Fatality Analysis Reporting System, a study by ValuePenguin recently listed the 50 most dangerous highways in the United States, and 12 of them were in Texas.

Where is “Death Highway”?

One primary reason there are so many dangerous highways here comes with the high number of drunk driving crashes. However, above all others, only one highway is known by officials as “Death Highway.” Often thought of as the most dangerous highway in the country,” Route 285, a thoroughfare in West Texas and Eastern New Mexico that is commonly used to move supplies in and out of the oilfields on the Texas side of the Permian Basin. Last year alone, 93 people died in truck-related crashes on that highway, a number that was more than 40 percent higher than five years earlier.

In fact, Texas officials and researchers have detected a pattern when it comes to the fatality numbers on “Death Highway.” The number of fatalities seems to be directly related to the price of oil. For example, the number of truck crashes on the highway went way down in 2015, when oil prices sank significantly, but they surged last year, just as oil prices did, as well. As the price of oil rises, so does the need for the huge 18-wheelers needed to carry materials too and from the oilfields.

When the price of oil is high enough to make oil extraction worthwhile, the demand for drivers is huge. The demand is so high, it is possible for truckers to make six-figure salaries for the year. That attracts a lot of new drivers, who sometimes lack experience. That means some drivers speed, some are distracted and, too often and many work long days and are perhaps too tired to be driving. Too many of these drivers are simply trying to make as much money as possible before the price drops again.

The Roads Aren’t the Only Problem

There are reports that some drivers are working as many as 10-11 days straight, for as many as 14 hours every day, which means they are often driving on 4-6 hours of sleep per night. Many of the newer drivers are inexperienced, but they are also young and fearless. Some claim very few oilfield truck drivers have as many as two or three years of experience; many are starting to drive that much after just three weeks of training, and often only days after taking the three-part test for their Commercial Driver’s License. Put simply, many oil and gas drilling companies are using formal training as a substitute for experience.

Looking at all factors combined, what makes “Death Highway” and many other roads in the Permian Basin and other oil and gas production regions is that oversized trucks are being driven on roads that were never designed for the volume of heavy traffic they are now having to carry. In some areas of Route 285, drivers report roads that are in bad shape, with huge potholes and ruts in the road. In some areas, sinkholes several feet wide have appeared, which some blame on the fracking in some areas. Officials claim they are trying to keep up, but getting funding for repairs is a constant battle.

What Can Be Done About “Death Highway”?

For their part, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) has been implementing measures to address the problem. For example, the speed limit on “Death highway,” areas used to be posted as high as 75 miles per hour, but they have been lowered. Unfortunately,  the number of trucks and traffic have been growing so much, there isn’t much more to be done. It takes a long time to build or rebuild roads, which means it’s very difficult and very expensive to keep up with growth in the oil and gas industry.

The problem isn’t just the roads. While the roads in the region should be better kept, so should the trucks. Too often, the large trucks being used in and around the oilfields are not always maintained properly. This is more disturbing because the maintenance costs for an oilfield truck are far higher than a standard 18-wheeler hauling goods between locations on major highways. Too often, the lack of maintenance means minor mechanical problems can become major, which means the truck can become a hazard on the road, especially if that road is in bad shape.

Whereas many local drivers of all sorts of vehicles claim they are aware of the risks of driving on oilfield roads, the hazards aren’t always apparent. While it is probably a good idea to reduce speed limits in areas like “Death Highway,” more should be done to fix these roads, to make them safer for everyone. There should also be more enforcement of both companies and drivers, to make sure they’re qualified and the trucks are safe. Also, it makes sense that a correlation exists between the price of oil and the volume of large truck traffic, which means DPS and other state agencies should expect fluctuation in both and rebuild roads like “Death Highway” in a way that makes them safe under any traffic conditions.

All drivers in Texas should drive safely at all times, and the best way to do that is to always drive defensively and minimize all distractions. Be aware of your surroundings, especially on rural roads with high traffic levels. If you lost a family member on this highway, please contact our wrongful death attorney and set up a free consultation to explore your options.

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