Data: Rural roads pose many dangers
As the population surges in Carlsbad and Eddy County, so does the traffic.
And more cars mean more accidents.
The oil and gas industry, which affects most of the community’s economy and population, continually fluctuates. During boom times, tragedies on the road become more frequent.
Data from the New Mexico Department of Transportation shows a statewide trend of fatal accidents spiking in 2014, when the industry was thriving.
There were 16 fatal car crashes in Eddy County in 2014.
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When oil and gas plummeted in 2015, that number dropped to just 10, and shrunk down to seven in 2016.
But with the extraction industry beginning its reprise, Eddy County has already met last year’s total as of May.
While major metropolitan areas in New Mexico have the highest rates of fatal accidents, rural counties are not immune to the problem.
Rural McKinley County had fatal crash rates higher than both Doña Ana and Santa Fe Counties, both containing urban centers.
McKinley’s total during the boom in 2014 was 48 while Doña Ana showed 19, according to NMDOT records. Santa Fe County, which includes the state capital Santa Fe, had 18.
In nearby Lea County, an area also defined by the oil and gas industry, the boom of 2014 saw fatal accidents more than double from 12 in 2013 to 31 in 2014.
Lea County’s rate has remained low during the oil and gas recession, but there have been nine fatal crashes as of May, just four shy of the 2016 total.
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Rural roads more dangerous?
In the remote areas of the county, far from the congestion and haste of the urban corridor, car accidents can spike for many different reasons.
Eddy County Sheriff’s Sgt. Matt Hutchinson said accidents on remote roads see an uptick partially because of commercial traffic associated with oil booms, but also are caused by a country-road mentality held by many drivers.
“Less traffic turns into higher speeds,” he said. “People see less traffic and think the speed limit should be higher.”
Many county roads are also poorly lit, Hutchinson said, and some areas even allow livestock to graze openly, freely crossing roadways to get to a preferred patch of grass.
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In addition to speeding, Hutchinson blamed driver inattentiveness and road upkeep for contributing to accidents.
He said traffic has increased in rural areas as well.
“As oil and gas booms, we have more frequency of people coming on our roads,” he said.
This "identifiable rate of use" is what leads Eddy County Sheriff's Office prevention methods, Hutchinson said.
Deputies identify certain areas of high use, sending out patrols to deter reckless drivers with their presence.
Ticketing, while not the goal of patrols, can also keep drivers in check, he said.
“The deterrent is the citation, but the presence helps as well,” Hutchinson said. “We’re not just trying to write tickets. The presence is also a deterrent, that is a scientific fact.”
During the summer months, the department implements its “100 Days and Nights of Summer” initiative, aimed at keeping roads safe with added patrols along rural county roads.
A deputy will be dedicated to traffic enforcement in such areas, looking for drunk or reckless drivers, during a time when accidents can spike.
“When you get out into the county, there are problems,” Hutchinson said. “We’re trying to counteract that.”
A study by TRIP, a national transportation research organization, showed that urban roads are at a high risk of car crashes because they're used for industrial commerce, along with motorists crossing over from one populated area to another.
Rural non-interstate roads see traffic fatalities at rates that are about two-and-a-half times higher than all other roads, read the study.
In 2015, rural roads saw fatalities at a rate of 2.18 deaths for every 100 million vehicle miles of travel, the study read, while all other roads average 0.83 deaths.
Rural roads accounted for 43 percent — or 15,132 — of the nation’s 35,092 traffic deaths in 2015, the study said.
The study pointed to the lack of safety features on rural roads, and a higher variety of land features such as slopes and sharp curves. There is usually less upkeep over the years on rural roads, the study read, often leaving them uneven and unpredictable.
A quarter of New Mexico’s rural roads are in “poor condition” the study said, ranking the state fifth in the nation, tied with Mississippi.
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Another danger on rural roads is the design. Eighty-six percent of the rural roads are just two lanes, records show, causing dangerous crowding for motorists.
“Most head-on crashes on rural, non-Interstate roads are likely caused by a motorist making an unintentional maneuver as a result of driver fatigue, being distracted or driving too fast in a curve,” read the study.
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Ashley Hayes owns JK Auto and Diesel, a towing company often called in to clean up the aftermath of accidents.
She said drivers need to pay more attention.
“Most of the time it looks like driver inattention,” she said. “Somebody ran a stop sign or a stop light.”
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Hayes said her company is called to the scene of major accidents by Carlsbad police and Eddy County deputies up to three times per month, and responds to about two or three fatalities each year.
She pointed to intersections near Walmart in Carlsbad, feet from the South Y highway junction and Loving Highway.
The corner of Wood and Canal can be especially dangerous, Hayes said.
Both intersections are known for heavy traffic from commuters and truck drivers alike, she said, crowding the roadways and leading to accidents.
“I definitely think traffic has become a huge issue,” she said. “There are definitely more accidents than ever before. Coming off the Loving Highway is crazy.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.