US-285 along the Permian Basin has been notoriously coined as “Death Highway” by locals in West Texas. As the Permian Basin oil boom continues to expand, the highway has become a dangerously congested pipeline for big rigs, 18 wheelers, and oilfield truckers. In fact, the Midland Reporter-Telegram reported that 11 percent of Texas’ fatalities are happening in the Permian Basin (despite only accounting for only a total of 2 percent of Texas’ population).
The Permian Basin
When the first in-basin sand mine became operational in 2017, the Permian Basin became the largest supplier of in-basin or local-sand in the contiguous United States. According to the Texas Department of Transportation or TxDOT for short, there were 1,457 serious injuries and 43,661 vehicle crashes in the Permian Basin in that year alone. Furthermore, the TxDOT is reporting that there were over 30,000 traffic accidents reported in 2019, a 23% increase from 2017.
What Makes Death Highway So Dangerous?
Booming Oil & Gas Industry
The capital intensive demand of the oil and gas industry has caused truck drivers to work longer hours, increasing the risks of driver fatigue. Many truck drivers are being forced to work fourteen-hour days for consecutive days, sometimes weeks. The Houston Chronicle interviewed a local truck driver from El Paso, Joe Gomez, who spends the majority of his time in the heavily trafficked Permian corridor. “It’s very dangerous out here, and it’s just getting worse and worse with the growth,” Gomez said. “A lot of people are getting killed when they’re not getting enough sleep and just trying to drive back home.”
US-285 or better known as Death Highway was built nearly a century ago in 1926. The dusty two-lane highway was never designed to accommodate for the monumental influx of commercial trucks and heavy traffic conditions that the road sees today. The heavy flow of big truck traffic has led to an increase in accidents and fatalities. Everyday folks are forced to share an old and inadequate road with massive commercial vehicles. The industry’s oilfields call for massive commercial vehicles and the sheer weight and volume of big trucks have done a considerable amount of damage to the nearly-century old road.
Consequently, the TxDOT is currently working on an $800 million project to expand and repair the road. The combination of the booming oil industry and the congested roadways are spewing out tons of heavy oil field trucks onto a deteriorated road with ongoing construction projects. As construction becomes a necessity, crew members work to repair potholes and deteriorated asphalt to widen areas of the highway. Thus, everyday drivers are forced to face hazardous driving conditions that include changing speed limits, altering width restrictions, and busy construction workers on an already over-crowded roadway.
There's no question that the booming oil and gas sector is contributing to the development of rural counties, creating thousands of jobs, and is raking in billions of in-state-revenue for the state of Texas. Nevertheless, the TxDOT and more importantly the CEOs of multi-billion dollar petrochemical companies could be doing more to improve public safety in the Lone Star State's energy corridors. Death Highway is just another example of massive industries putting profits over people.
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