By Tammye Nash | Lone Star News Group
CLEBURNE – More than one-fifth of the world’s drilling rigs are located in Texas, according to a recent article published in the San Antonio Express-News. Thirty-four of those rigs are located in the 16 counties — including Johnson and Parker counties — that make up the Barnett Shale in North Central Texas.
Although the new oil boom is not without its controversies, it has brought new jobs and new people to the region. And that means more traffic and therefore more accidents and more fatalities.
The oil boom is “great for the state overall,” said Carol Rawson, traffic operations division director for the Texas Department of Transportation, “but it means some real challenges for us, too, especially when it comes to transportation.”
Chief among those challenges is the increase in motor vehicle accidents that accompanies increased traffic. To try and stem that rising tide, TxDOT officials, along with officials from Johnson County and the Department of Public Safety, unveiled TxDOT’s “Be Safe. Drive Smart.” campaign, aimed specifically at reminding drivers to be extra careful when driving in an energy work zone, with a press conference Friday at the Johnson County Courthouse.
Rawson said that in 2012 there were 3,384 people killed in motor vehicle accidents in Texas — a 10 percent increase over the previous year. In the 16 counties in the Barnett Shale, Rawson said, there were 14,920 motor vehicle accidents involving fatalities or serious injuries last year.
While the Barnett Shale region hasn’t seen the double-digit increases in accidents that have plagued other areas of the state, Rawson said, “TxDOT is committed to taking steps here to reduce the number of accidents that are happening.”
New life in the oil and gas industry means more heavy trucks on the roads, Rawson said, and that means that passenger vehicle drivers — as well as truck drivers — need to be even more careful to stay safe.
The idea behind “Be Safe. Drive Smart,” is to stress basic safety precautions that many drivers often overlook, such as:
• Always wear a seatbelt.
• Don’t drive drowsy.
• Drive a safe speed that takes into account traffic, road conditions and weather.
• Stop for all stop signs and red lights.
• Pass carefully.
• Don’t drive distracted, which includes not texting or talking on cellphones.
• Never drink and drive.
Brian Barth, TxDOT’s deputy district engineer for Fort Worth, stressed the importance of his agency partnering with local governmental and local and state law enforcement to be effective in reducing traffic accidents. Barth introduced Johnson County Judge Roger Harmon, who said that county government started working early on that effort.
As soon as new techniques allowing oil and gas companies to profitably return to what were once thought to be depleted oil fields, including Johnson County, Harmon said the Johnson County Commissioners Court started working to mitigate the fallout related to the increased traffic.
“We have been very proactive in working with the DPS in regards to safety,” Harmon said, adding that Sheriff Bob Alford came to the court and said, “Let’s get a game plan in place on safety.”
Harmon said the commissioners authorized the hiring of four additional sheriff’s office deputies, one in each precinct, to work with the DPS specifically on traffic issues related to the oil and gas industry. It is the county’s partnership with DPS that has made the effort successful, he said.
“When you first look at it, the task of a job can look tremendous. But when you are working together, you can accomplish a lot,” Harmon said.
DPS Maj. Michael Bradberry, who oversees the 42-county Dallas region that includes the 16 counties of the Barnett Shale, said that because drivers in North Central Texas have not been used to having so many large trucks on the road, the revival of the oil and gas industry here has led to spikes in the numbers of accidents on U.S. 67 and U.S. 377, Texas 171 and many of the farm-to-market and county roads in the area. He said region-wide accidents rose by 24 percent last year.
He said that DPS officers in the 16 Barnett Shale counties in 2012 made 17,559 inspections on trucks associated with the oil and gas industry, and that in 3,938 of those inspections, either the truck or the driver was put out of service because of safety violations.
“We are working to increase safety by putting more troopers on the roads, which means a reduction in the hazardous conditions, a reduction in violations and a reduction in crashes,” he said.
Bradberry stressed the need to follow the basics of safe driving, and said that drivers need to remember that rural roads can be just as hazardous as urban traffic — if not more so.
“Drivers tend to be not as aware on the rural roads, but it’s just as dangerous. There are actually even more hazards, like the chance of dust clouds and that there are fewer lanes, which means fewer routes of escape if something happens. Drivers on rural roads need to be extra vigilant, Bradberry said, adding that 54 percent of fatal crashes in Texas happen on rural roadways.
For more information about the Texas Department of Transportation and about the “Be safe. Drive smart,” campaign, visit www.txdot.gov.