Tuesday, May 6, 2014
The nation's oil and natural gas boom has taken an unexpected toll in traffic fatalities in states with intense drilling activity. Some key questions and answers:
Q: What's to blame for the spike in traffic deaths?
A: The sudden influx of trucks used for drilling and other traffic running through communities that have not had time to prepare for it. Many towns and small cities have not been able to upgrade roads or add traffic lights and new enforcement personnel fast enough to keep up with the boom in activity.
Q: How is this different from other economic booms?
A: Fatal accidents almost always rise along with economic activity or a growing population, but this boom has been especially deadly because new drilling techniques require thousands of truck trips for each new well. Trucks and cars make a dangerous mix, safety experts say, because of their different sizes and speeds.
Q: How dangerous have roads become?
A: In North Dakota drilling regions, traffic fatalities increased 350 percent over the past decade, while the population rose 43 percent. In one Texas drilling district, officials calculated that drivers were 2.5 times more likely to die in a fatal crash per mile driven compared with the statewide average. Fatalities in West Virginia's most heavily drilled counties rose 42 percent in 2013, while traffic deaths in the rest of the state declined 8 percent.
Q: Have some drilling areas avoided increased fatalities?
A: Colorado's Weld County approved a record number of drilling permits last year but saw traffic fatalities fall by 23 percent, the lowest level in ten years. The county has been a focus of safety efforts for a decade because of historically high fatality rates, and drilling isn't as concentrated there as it is in some other states.
Q: Are there any other factors besides the number of trucks, the volume of traffic and the quality of the roads?
A: Experts point to a few other factors. Federal truck safety rules limit the amount of time most truckers can stay on the road, but those rules are less stringent for drivers in the oil and gas industry. Workers who arrive to find work in booming regions are often young men, the riskiest driving demographic. Trucking companies scrambling to get new business sometimes hire inexperienced drivers. Also, accident investigators find that in many cases, motorists get impatient while following big trucks and take risks such as passing on hills or curves.
Q: What do the drilling companies say?
A: They recognize it is a problem. Motor vehicle accidents are the single biggest cause of oil and gas worker fatalities. Marvin Odum, who runs Royal Dutch Shell's operations in the Americas, said Shell is working hard to reduce the number of truck trips needed to drill each well, both to save money and reduce the danger to workers and residents.
Q: Is anything being done to ease the problem?
A: North Dakota is adding turning and climbing lanes, and Pennsylvania and Texas have safe-driving campaigns for areas with heavy drilling. Range Resources, a major driller, said it employs off-duty law enforcement officers to monitor its trucks.