The other day, one of my staff wrote about the possibility that authorities aren't properly counting fatalities in oilfield truck crashes in west Texas. While that article raises some interesting points, I think that what people most care about is, "How do we bring the number of Texas oilfield trucking fatalities down?" Media outlets raise issues such as speed limits, road maintenance, and truck upkeep, which all play a role in the problem: What no one wants to discuss is that the biggest factor in whether an 18-wheeler causes a deadly crash is the quality of the truck's driver. Unfortunately, the nature of trucking in west Texas makes it more likely that bad drivers end up behind the wheel, and that certainly leads to more fatalities.
How a Commercial Truck Accident Attorney Reads a West Texas Truck Crash
I assume some people already rolled their eyes and said, "Of course, Mike, hiring safer truck drivers leads to fewer accidents." However, it's not just stating the obvious, because factors unique to truck driving in west Texas create an environment where the guy behind the wheel often has no business being there. Let me explain some of the things I see when I read about a fatal 18-wheeler crash in west Texas. This is for illustration purposes, I don't have any inside knowledge of the crash I'm about to discuss.
On Monday, December 15, 2019, Yosmely Vadillo took a turn on Ranch Road 1233 in his 18-wheeler. He was just outside of Monahans and according to authorities, Mr. Vadillo went too fast around the turn. As a result, his truck rolled and collided with Jose Adame's pick-up truck, which was traveling in the opposite direction. The force of the impact totaled Mr. Adame's pick-up and he died as a result.
An early report indicated that Mr. Vadillo is from out-of-state and that's about all the information that's in the public, at the moment. If all of that is accurate, then there's a good chance that the truck in this accident is part of the oil business. For, one, a disproportionate number of people who work in west Texas oil reside in other parts of the country and fly in to do their jobs. The region's sparse population means that there are not enough skilled workers to go around.
Another reason to suspect an oil industry connection is that the wreck occurred rather far from I-20. While there is a lot cross-country trucking that travels along I-20 (and this would also explain the out-of-state driver), it would be incredibly strange for such a truck to wander so far from the interstate. Given the massive oil and gas concerns in the region, that's the most likely reason for an 18-wheeler to be on that stretch of highway. I admit that I can't confirm some of these suspicions, but the pattern lines up with a lot of what I typically see in commercial truck accident cases that I litigate.
What Makes it So Hard to Find Good 18-Wheeler Drivers in West Texas?
There is a nation-wide shortage of qualified truckers. Trucking companies feel this shortfall in whatever region of the country that they operate. However, conditions in west Texas exacerbate this problem. First, since it is oil companies that most need truckers, demand tracks with the boom/bust cycle of the energy market. In good years, demand peaks quickly, and given the shortage of qualified truckers, a desperate scramble for drivers ensues. In lean years, there isn't enough work to go around and the lack of work in other industries in west Texas means that a lot of truck drivers move on to something else.
Add to this the lack of amenities in west Texas, a relatively small permanent population, and a brutal climate, and it's easy to see why oil companies face difficulties hiring the drivers they need. And I haven't even spoken about how west Texas oil trucking is some of the hardest work on the planet. The shifts are long, conditions rough, and then when a driver finally gets some downtime, there isn't a lot to do in the area. A lot of people hear about the money that west Texas truck drivers make and it sounds intriguing. Then they hear about how hard you have to work to get that money and decide there are easier ways to make a living.
What kind of people sign up for this life? Generally speaking, they fall into two broad classes. The first are the salt of the earth folks, who would spend their days crushing mountains into gravel, so long as it put food on their families' tables. These folks don't run from hard work. In fact, they wear their brutal profession like a badge. While many of us may envy that kind of resolve and determination, we don't have much trouble understanding why these folks do what they do. Most importantly, very few people from this pool of drivers (who make up the overwhelming majority of west Texas oilfield truckers) get into fatal wrecks.
The lure of a big paycheck lures another type of person, the desperate. These folks endure the same challenges as the first group, not because of their stern character, but because they literally have no other choice. For instance, one of my staff has a cousin who works in the oilfields that might fall into this category. He spends the majority of his time in west Texas, away from his family, because he has 11 children and an oilfield paycheck is the only way to care for all of them.
Whether it's 11 kids, a shady past, or an expensive substance edition, desperate people end up that way for many reasons, including poor decision-making. The problem with such folks driving commercial trucks is that it's one place where a person has to make good decisions all the time. When a trucker decides to take a curb too fast, because he wants to get where he's going, the tragic result is often a death, like in the crash that killed Mr. Adame.
This isn't just speculation. I've sued truckers with drug addictions, who like to watch television going down the road, and quite a few who were simply unable to safely drive an 18-wheeler. In one case I litigated in west Texas, the truck driver who caused a catastrophic wreck was on their 5th employer, not because they were getting jobs with better companies, but because they were fired from the previous 4.
To be fair, I'm not just picking on truckers. Bad drivers possess the potential to be deadly, whatever kind of vehicle they drive. What makes trucker particularly threatening is that 40 tons of steel and cargo they're piloting down the road. The problem only grows when a region, for various reasons, has trouble attracting and retaining safe drivers.
Reducing Oilfield Trucking Fatalities Starts in the Office, Not on the Road
Whenever a trucking company hires a truck driver who shouldn't be behind the wheel, they're betting the short-term game of keeping a truck on the road outweighs the potential risks to other motorists. Often, the company doesn't see the folly of their ways until a commercial truck accident attorney, like me, shows them, in court, how costly their mistake was. Of course, attorneys like me can only help victims and their families after the fact. It would be better for everyone if these crashes didn't occur in the first place.
To be fair, a lot of oilfield companies in west Texas understand this. They go so far as to put safety first, even when that means letting a vitally needed truck sit idle, for lack of a qualified, safe driver. Unfortunately, there are still far too many companies that do not make these sacrifices. If they have the truck ready to go, they'll find a body, any body, to put behind the wheel. The danger of this way of doing business is obvious: It kills and cripples.
The press is right that fleet maintenance, properly servicing and upgrading roadways, and appropriate speed limits all play a role in reducing west Texas oilfield truck crash fatalities. Even if the industry and government work together to improve each of those areas, all of that progress is undone if a company hands the keys of an 18-wheeler to the wrong driver. Since the goal is to save lives, the best place to start is ensuring that only safe, properly trained drivers are on west Texas roads.