“The pool of drivers with at least two to three years of oilfield experience ‘has dwindled to nothing’ … companies are "substituting formal training for experience." That quote from a Permian frac sand hauler in a Dallas Morning News article is what many in the Permian cite as the reason a 79 mile stretch of highway has been dubbed “Death Highway.”
Only 2% of the Texas population lives in the Permian Basin region. In 2016, 11% of all traffic fatalities in the state occurred there. In 2018, there were an average of a little under 11 vehicle accidents per single mile of roadway along the 79 mile stretch of Highway 285 in Reeves County. In 2017, 93 people were killed in truck related accidents alone in the Permian. Many were on Highway 285 which locals now refer to as “Death Highway.”
In 2016, Reeves County, Texas, was ranked by the Auto Insurance Center as the 6th most dangerous roadway in the United States. From 2016 to 2018, the number of wrecks in Reeves county increased by 150% (from 364 to 908). Traffic counts at the intersection of Highway 285 and I-20 at Pecos nearly doubled from 2011 to 2017 from 8,800 to 16,828.
In nearby Ector County (Odessa), crashes in 2018 were double that of 2016 at 5,170. According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, overall across the Permian region, car crash fatalities were up 97%, commercial vehicle crashes were up 160%, and commercial vehicle-related fatalities were up 122%.
The reasons for the increases are obvious. "When you've been in the oilfield for ten to 11 days, working 14 hours a day, you just become so tired that you're not thinking straight… you're just brain dead, because you're living off four to six hours of sleep." The trucker concluded in the same DMN article.
With the increased buildout of the Permian comes an increase in traffic, and an increase in the number of drivers. Add to that the fact that the roads were originally designed for local and farm traffic, combined the fact that distracted driving is on the rise, and the demand for on-time delivery the increased numbers make sense. On U.S. 285 in Reeves County, “failure to control speed,” was tied to 93 crashes from 2015 to 2018.
Truck driver distraction was also listed among the top reasons by TxDOT for wrecks with some 15% of truckers involved admitting being on their smart phones surfing social media sites like Facebook while driving.
In those cases where the “truck” was at fault, 87% were due to driver error while 10% were caused by vehicle failure (tire blowouts, brake failure) and 3% environmental (wind, ice etc..) The leading factors of driver error in top to bottom order are: travelling too fast, unfamiliarity with the roadway, over the counter drug use, and fatigue/distracted driving.
National data shows that a truck running out of lanes (for whatever reason) is the most common occurrence of wrecks where the truck was at fault in 32% of wrecks. Loss of control of the truck followed at 29% and rear end collisions were at the heart of 22% of wrecks.
But it’s not just the truckers fault. Trends in wrecks involving trucks revealed by the Federal Department of Transportation indicate that in about 59% of all truck crashes, the cause was due to the action of another vehicle. Most wrecks occurred during clear dry conditions (whereas bad weather tends to slow traffic), on Mondays, between 3pm and 6pm.
At present, Texas is addressing the problem in the Permian by lowering speed limits, committing more state troopers to police the roadways, and in committing nearly $1 billion to improve highways in the area.