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In Texas, Traffic Deaths Climb Amid Fracking Boom

Guillermo Gomez, husband of Vilma Marenco, holds his daughter in their home in Northeast Houston. Marenco was killed in April after being hit by an uninsured trucker who ran a red light.
Mayra Beltran
Houston Chronicle
Guillermo Gomez, husband of Vilma Marenco, holds his daughter in their home in Northeast Houston. Marenco was killed in April after being hit by an uninsured trucker who ran a red light.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has unlocked huge reserves of oil and gas in shale formations in many states. The biggest winner, in terms of new jobs, has been Texas.

But an investigation by Houston Public Media and the Houston Chronicle shows Texas highways have become the nation's deadliest amid a fracking boom.

Flatbed trucks bearing loads of steel pipe often barrel down these roads. Truck drivers often run into problems when they have to make wide turns onto narrow side streets.

Vilma Marenco was hit by one of those trucks on April 22.

She was driving home when she stopped at an intersection along Old Beaumont Highway, linking East Houston to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. She entered the intersection, less than a mile from her house, when an 18-wheeler ran the red light on Old Beaumont, crushing her Chevy Cavalier. Marenco's husband, Guillermo Gomez, tried desperately to reach her by phone.

"I called her and called her and called her, but she never answered," he says.

It would be hours before Gomez learned his wife was dead.

The Texas Department of Public Safety says the company involved, R & F Quality Transportation, shouldn't have had a truck on the road at all. It had racked up a string of safety violations in the months leading up to the crash, ranging from defective brakes to a driver smoking marijuana behind the wheel. When R & F failed to address the problems, state officials ordered it to shut down, an order the carrier ignored. All attempts to reach R & F for comment failed.

The death toll on Texas highways had been falling for decades, as car companies built safer vehicles. But that trend shifted into reverse as the boom in fracking began to heat up.

The Texas Department of Transportation says that between 2009 and 2013, the state's traffic fatalities rose by eight percent, even as those in most other states continued to fall. And deaths linked to commercial vehicle crashes, like trucks, soared by more than 50 percent over the same period.

The boom has triggered a huge demand for both tractor-trailers and drivers.

"People who've never been in the seat of a truck before go to school for two weeks, and they graduate, and now they're a truck driver, you know," says Larry Busby, the long-time sheriff of Live Oak County in the Eagle Ford shale region of South Texas. "Well, they're not a truck driver yet. They've just passed the school."

The Texas Trucking Association, an industry trade group, says the rising death toll has more to do with drivers sharing the road with trucks than with the truckers themselves.

"There is a level of congestion that is rising all over the state, particularly in these areas of smaller counties that involve the oil field and energy exploration, and it's causing folks that are not accustomed to that type of congestion to make unnecessary risks, and it's costing lives," says John Esparza, president of the Texas Trucking Association.

Experts cite fatigue as another factor pushing up traffic fatalities tied to the oil and gas industry. Oilfield workers often work 12-hour shifts, then pile into a company van to drive half an hour or more from their work site to a hotel.

In March 2013, nine Sanjel Corp. employees were returning to their hotel after an overnight shift in West Texas. A pickup truck hit their van, killing three people.

"To put men in a position of being fatigued and to be driving long distance is not something that a company should do, and it shows a disregard for the safety of their employees," says Alexander Gurevich, an attorney representing the victims' families.

Sanjel says the van driver has testified that he was not fatigued at the time of the accident.

Texas is struggling to find ways to improve safety on its roads, without disrupting the oil industry on which so many jobs depend. The state's trucking industry backed a bill, signed by Gov. Rick Perry last year, making it easier for regulators to strip rogue carriers of the permits they need to operate.

But denying permits isn't always enough. State officials ordered R & F Quality Transportation to cease operations last December, four months before one of its drivers struck and killed Marenco. Gomez, is now raising their daughter alone.

"This has left a great emptiness for my daughter and me," Gomez says. "The only thing I am asking for is a thorough investigation of all of this and that there be justice."

Civil courts are often the only source of justice for victims' families. Few such accidents lead to criminal prosecutions.

Houston Chronicle reporter Lise Olsen contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 Houston Public Media News 88.7

Andrew Schneider
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