Jennifer Hiller | San Antonio Express-News
KARNES CITY — More cars and trucks continue traveling battered roads in South Texas, and the state is — again — rolling out a safety campaign geared to drivers in the booming Eagle Ford Shale oil field.
This time the state pushed its “Be Safe. Drive Smart” campaign with a series of oversized safety signs in the Karnes County seat, the busiest spot in Texas for crude oil production.
The safety signs are 15 1/2 feet high and about 8 feet wide — designed to jump out and be noticed. Some carry traditional messages such as “Pass With Care” or “Drive Friendly.”
Other signs are more cheeky: “REALLY. Stop Means Stop” and “Not SO Fast.”
They were all meant to remind drivers of all sorts of vehicles to pay extra care to the road in the Eagle Ford and in the Permian Basin in West Texas — both regions where an oil boom has brought a wealth of jobs, but also put more cars and heavy trucks on a rural road network.
TxDOT has already taken its safety campaign and oversized signs to Midland, the largest city in the Permian Basin. After the signs left Karnes City last week, they went to San Angelo in the emerging Cline Shale region.
“We’re finding that many drivers let their guard down when traveling these rural areas,” said Gerald Bryant, a trooper with the Texas Department of Public Safety. “Traffic has definitely changed in this area.”
Bryant said that an increase in crashes is being caused by drivers ignoring traffic signs, more large trucks, and increased wear and tear on the roads. The most unsafe times of day to drive: around 5 p.m. as most people drive home from work.
TxDOT said that in a 23-county area that stretches from Laredo to the eastern edge of the oil field near Huntsville there were 3,450 crashes that resulted in serious injuries or fatalities. There were 238 fatalities in 2013, down from 248 the year before.
In 2013, in the 59-county Permian Basin, there were 4,371 serious or fatal traffic crashes, up 5 percent from the year before, with 358 fatalities, an increase of 13 percent.
Speeding and driver inattention were the two issues that local law enforcement has reported as leading to most of the crashes. The “Be Safe. Drive Smart” campaign urges drivers to take their time and give large trucks plenty of room to maneuver.
Karnes City Police Chief Roel “Eddie” Salas said Karnes County had 318 accidents last year and now averages between 40 to 60 wrecks each month.
“Just be aware of what’s going on around you, especially when you’re passing a commercial vehicle,” Salas said. “You have to remember that these large trucks take longer to stop.”
Roads that once saw a few hundred cars or trucks per day now see a few thousand trucks. Drivers must dodge gaping potholes. Chunks of roadway often crumble from the weight and break off. Many roads are covered in what TxDOT calls “alligator cracks,” a network of fractures that resemble reptile skin.
It’s become a key quality-of-life issue for residents. In 2013, in a list of potential threats to the state of Texas, the Department of Public Safety pinpointed traffic accidents in the Eagle Ford Shale region in a list that included drug cartels, human trafficking and natural disasters. The DPS said that crashes were expected to continue rising in the South Texas oil patch as more people, cars and trucks flow into the rural area.
The most dangerous areas were in some of the counties considered to be in the “core” of the play, drawing the most drilling activity and the biggest profits for oil companies. The report said that between 2009 and 2011 in Karnes, La Salle and Dimmit counties, crashes involving a commercial vehicle increased 470 percent, while total crashes increased 98 percent.
Based on drilling permits, the DPS says that DeWitt, McMullen, Webb and Zavala counties also had an increasing risk of crashes.
To improve road safety, TxDOT is trying to do things such as widen roads where the pavement has crumbled at the edges as well as adding some left turn lanes and passing lanes. Heavily traveled east-west routes that carry drivers across the shale region are getting much of the attention.
West Texas, also in the middle of a new Permian Basin energy boom, is facing many of the same issues as South Texas.