November 7, 2016 marked an anniversary, which the Texas Department of Transportation marked by issuing a release to commemorate a grim Texas milestone:
"At least one person has died each and every day on Texas roads since November 7, 2000."
Sixteen Years?! Just How Many Fatalities Have There Been?
Over the last sixteen years--that's 5,845 days, give or take--not a single one has gone by in which nobody died in a Texan motor vehicle crash. The official TxDOT estimate of fatalities suffered since November 7, 2000 stands at 55,578. The primary causes for these wrecks aren't terribly surprising, cited as "intoxication, excess speed, and failure to remain in one lane."
In raw numbers, America's deadliest roads are generally found in the Lone Star State. Statistics from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) show 3,538 documented deaths from Texan vehicle crashes in 2014 alone. Somewhat bafflingly, Texas managed to outperform second-place California by a full 15%. The Golden State saw only 3,074 fatalities despite a population 44% larger than Texas's and 37% more cumulative vehicle miles traveled by its drivers.
Examining numbers that have been adjusted for total population and miles travelled, Texas's roads are still more hazardous than the national average. In 2014 when the last investigations were conducted, the national mean stood at 10.2 deaths per 100,000 people, and 1.08 deaths per hundred million vehicle miles traveled. Texans upped that ante, suffering 13.1 deaths per 100,000 population and 1.46 deaths per 100 million miles.
Using the latter statistics, Texas thankfully was not the worst in the Union overall. Wyoming was found to have suffered a startling 25.7 deaths per 100,000 population, and South Carolina suffered 1.65 deaths per hundred million vehicle miles traveled. Texas did however lead the board in states with high populations (over 10 million residents) and/or heavily traveled roads (over 100 billion annual vehicle miles).
What Can We Do About This?
All it takes is a single crash-free day to start on the path out of this surfeit of tragedies. The bulk of collision prevention would likely fall to drivers, since it primarily revolves around their awareness and agency behind the wheel.
TxDOT has tried to engage social media to this effect, creating an "#EndTheStreakTX" hashtag campaign to educate drivers "in an effort to stop this tragic trend." Visiting its website, I found the campaign encourages people to share these grim statistics through social media, and change their profile pictures to ones much like ours at the top of the article. The department further offers a few simple tips in an overall effort to buck the state's unwelcome tradition:
- Buckle your seatbelt - all passengers need to be buckled.
- Pay attention - put your phone away and avoid distractions.
- Never drink and drive - drunk driving kills; get a sober ride home.
- Drive the speed limit - always follow speed limits and drive slower speeds when weather or conditions warrant.
While of course every effort counts, and these are valuable things to remember, I wonder if reciting the catch-all "rules of the road" is really expected to make positive strides in the effort to curb motorist fatalities. While there doesn't appear to be a one-stop solution that will entirely do away with these deaths, it is hard to believe that even transgressive drivers don't know to buckle up and drive the speed limit. Making them care seems to be the difficult part, and even TxDOT's assertion that enough people died in crashes through 2015 to fill ten crashing jumbo jets may not have the desired effect.
Somewhat cynically, I wonder if anything really can spur Texas drivers to be more mindful of their surroundings and themselves. That's not to point any particular fingers; Texans, like anyone else, have places to be and things to do, and a lot of problems can occur between points A and B. Many of those factors are not even within a driver's control, like vehicle malfunctions or detaching debris from other cars. They may even have been over-served alcohol, and while it was their decision to keep drinking, the establishment that kept serving them is at least partially responsible for damages in states with dram shop laws, like Texas.
Other times--and I take no pleasure in pointing this out--it is a driver's fault. It's important when looking at liability to be open to the facts of a situation. If a driver steers with his knees while he eats a taco with one hand and sends a text with the other, it's going to be difficult to claim he had no hand in a wreck. Changing the DVD to keep the kids entertained on a road trip? Pull to the shoulder first, or have a passenger do it. Need to adjust your smartphone's map route to avoid toll roads? Fix it before you leave, ask a passenger, or find somewhere to stop for fifteen seconds. Distracted driving is a serious and growing problem all over the world, and despite its occasional indications to the contrary, Texas still remains a part of that world.
There will often be times when the liability for a crash is contended. Neither side (if there are two sides) will want to admit fault, and why would they? They're innocent until proven guilty; that's how justice works. In our adversarial civil system, each party makes its claims and an impartial adjudicating body, be it judge or jury, determines which has the more viable case.
I'm sure tort reformers and those who simply mistrust the legal profession imagine our attorneys rubbing their hands together gleefully that such crash statistics exist, but I emphatically assure you that is not the case. Personal injury law exists because injuries occur, but it doesn't celebrate them. The families of the people tragically killed in these accidents are often entitled to pursue damages due to the negligent or reckless behavior of another party, be it a drunk driver that cause the collision or an auto manufacturer that sold a car with bad parts.
When these wrecks happen, those injured folk and their families need assistance to get back on their feet. They are often owed compensation for their injuries, their pain and suffering, and the crippling medical expenses that can come from being victims in such crashes. When the incidents are fatal, the family suffers mentally and emotionally, and a number of expenses can still arise. Without attorneys to assist them in the pursuit of redress, these mourners likely would not see a single dime; while it seems as though a moral imperative would drive a guilty party to assist the victims of his own free will, it usually requires legal intervention to ensure that their entitlements are honored and seen to. We at the firm have seen this scenario play out many times.
I think Texas as a state can get its act together long enough to at least end the depressing 16-year slump of fatal driving behavior. I believe in people's ability to see damaging behavior and correct it, once their eyes are opened. Besides, there's nothing Texans can't do once their minds are made up.