What Is Missing from the Discussion of Deadly West Texas Oil-Field Truck Crashes?

Jeffrey CarrDecember 12, 2019 5 minutes

It only takes a cursory glance at local Texas news to know that the highways in the Permian Basin, which straddles the Texas-New Mexico state line, are particularly dangerous. This heightened risk stems from several factors: their remote location, lack of maintenance, and the large number of heavy trucks from the oil industry that make up a substantial percentage of the traffic in the area. In fact, 93 people died in 2018 in oil truck related crashes in west Texas, particularly the areas around Midland-Odessa and Lubbock.

93 deaths in such a sparsely populated area is a truly shocking number. According to the Dallas Morning News, that's an increase of 43% over the number of deaths reported in 2014. However, when I first heard that number, I found myself wondering, "Are we sure that they're counting all the oil truck related fatalities?" While the press focuses on issues such as truck maintenance, road design, and driver qualifications, it only looks at these factors as they pertain to heavy trucks. These are the 18-wheelers and heavy duty dump trucks that haul sand, fracking liquids, and equipment to oil sites. However, a significant portion of the site workers and smaller equipment involved in the industry doesn't come in on these larger trucks, but smaller pick-up trucks. For reasons that I'll shortly explain, it's quite possible that a number of fatal crashes involving oil-field pick-up trucks end up being excluded from the official statistics.

A Lubbock Oil Truck Crash Claims Another Life

I was initially spurred to take a closer look at this topic by the tragic story of Jason Workman, a motorist who was killed just outside of Lubbock, on December 11, 2019. The incident occurred when an Imperative Chemical Partners Inc. oil-field pickup drove in the wrong direction of the 3500 block of Clovis highway, colliding head-on with Mr. Workman's pick-up. As a result of the collision, Mr. Workman passed away.

Out of the half-dozen outlets that filed reports on this incident, not a single one mentions that the pick-up that likely caused the crash is owned by an oil services company.

How have news outlets reported on this story? Every headline I've come across describes it as a collision between two pick-ups. Out of the half-dozen outlets that filed reports on this incident, not a single one mentions that an oilfield services company owns the pick-up that likely caused the crash. While authorities are aware that Imperative Chemical Partners Inc. owns and operates the alleged offending pick-up, and will likely ultimately classify this crash accurately as an oilfield truck accident, it's certainly concerning that skilled reporters missed this crucial detail.

More alarming still is that this crash represents just the latest in a long strong of improperly reported oilfield pick-up crashes. While authorities correctly identified the oilfield pick-up in this crash, I've come across far too many other instances where they did not. There's no way to know for certain, but it's quite likely that a portion of those crashes are not included in the official statistics for fatal oilfield truck crashes. So while 93 deaths in oilfield truck crashes may be an alarming number, the true number of fatalities could be significantly higher.

How Can Authorities Mis-count Oilfield Truck Crashes?

To better understand how mis-counting could be a problem in these cases, it's important to take a step back and consider how vehicle classification works in the eyes of regulators. Roughly speaking, all vehicles fall into two categories: commercial and non-commercial. Without much thought, most of us intuitively know that an 18-wheeler is a commercial vehicle, while your uncle's pick-up is not. But how many people have ever stopped to ask, "Why can't an 18-wheeler be my everyday driver? Would it still be a commercial vehicle if I drove it that way?" While it may seem like a bit of an absurd question, the answer tells us why an 18-wheeler can never be a non-commercial vehicle.

Just because a Peterbilt is always a commercial vehicle, doesn't mean that every small vehicle is a non-commercial vehicle.

The whole point behind designating some vehicles as commercial and some as non-commercial is the safety concerns they create. Larger vehicles impart more force in a crash, leading to more severe injuries. Recognizing this danger, our government enacts a whole range of safety measures, in order to minimize this risk. At a certain point, a vehicle's sheer size poses hazards that smaller vehicles don't. That's why the government considers vehicles over a certain weight to be commercial vehicles, regardless of how their owner uses them. And that's also why your Peterbilt can never be a non-commercial vehicle.

So if a vehicle is a certain size, it's commercial, but if it's smaller, it's non-commercial, right? Not exactly. Just because a Peterbilt is always a commercial vehicle, it doesn't mean that every small vehicle is a non-commercial vehicle. When it comes to smaller vehicles, like pick-up trucks, their classification depends on who owns them and their use. This is why the government lumps your minivan and your uncle's pick-up into the same group, but will classify the exact same pick-up that your uncle owns differently if a business operates it as a commercial vehicle.

What Does Truck Classification Have To Do with Miss-Counting Crashes?

Every company that owns an 18-wheeler must also have a Department of Transportation (DoT) number that identifies the company that operates the vehicle. However, whether or not a pick-up also needs a DoT number depends on both the how the vehicle is used and its weight. It's therefore easy for authorities to know that an 18-wheeler or pick-up with a DoT number is an oil-field vehicle. In fact, it's the DoT number on the wrong-way truck in the Justin Workman crash that's a dead give-away that the vehicle belongs to Imperative Chemical Partners Inc. This makes the vehicle easy to recognize as an oil-field vehicle and add to the statistics.

Given the lack of consolidation in the oil industry, with literally thousands of companies operating in the energy sector in west Texas alone, it's very likely that many trucks, which are in fact commercial vehicles, would likely slip through the cracks.

The problem is that there are many trucks around Midland, Odessa, and Lubbock, which oil companies own, but which, because the companies are small and don't engage in any of the activities that would require them to get a DoT number, would be indistinguishable from any other pick-up without a thorough investigation. Unless investigating authorities delve deeply into the ownership of the trucks, when these vehicles cause a wreck, it would be difficult for authorities to classify them as commercial vehicles. This has the potential to lead to them undercounting the number of deaths caused by oil-field trucks.

Given the lack of consolidation in the oil industry, with literally thousands of companies operating in the energy sector in west Texas alone, it's very likely that many trucks, which are in fact commercial vehicles, are slipping through the cracks. For instance, if you're the owner of a small oilfield services company, with a couple of employees, and you don't haul heavy gear or equipment with your truck, it's difficult to determine whether such a vehicle is commercial or non-commercial.

At Grossman Law Offices, we know that this scenario is more than just speculation, because of our attorneys' past experience litigating oilfield truck accident cases. In a couple of those cases, it was only after months of stone-walling from the insurance company (which was a red flag to our attorneys that the pick-up in the crash was a commercial vehicle) when they finally sent us a copy of the insurance policy, that our attorneys could say with certainty that the vehicle involved in the crash was a commercial vehicle. What are the odds that law enforcement, with many competing priorities and limited resources. properly designated these crashes as oilfield truck injuries and fatalities? The fact that the law requires them to file a police report within 10 business days gives you your answer.

Why Does it Matter if Fatal Oil-Field Truck Wrecks Are Counted Correctly?

The first step towards doing something about the horrific rates of oil-truck fatalities in west Texas is accurately understanding the full scope of the problem. Unfortunately, it often takes grim statistics to spur long-term solutions, whether those innovations originate from within the industry, the state government, or at the federal level. A potential under-count means that the stakeholders might not properly grasp the scale of the problem, which may keep them from taking the action needed to address it.

Whether it's reduced speed limits, better roads, improved driver training, or better means of transporting exhausted workers to and from job sites, none of this likely happens without a full accounting of oil-field truck fatalities. Until that time, innocent people like Jason Workman and their families will continue to pay the price of inaction. That cost is already too high, and quite possibly higher than it appears.