ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has unlocked huge reserves of oil and gas from shale formations in many states. The biggest winner in terms of new jobs has been Texas. But an investigation by Houston Public Media and the Houston Chronicle shows that Texas highways have become the nation's deadliest in this fracking boom. From Houston Public Media, Andrew Schneider reports.
ANDREW SCHNEIDER, BYLINE: Flatbed trucks bearing loads of steel pipe barrel down Old Beaumont Highway, linking East Houston to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. Every few minutes, one of them makes a wide turn at a stoplight onto a narrow side street. On April 22, Vilma Marenco was driving home after working the lunch shift at a nearby restaurant. She just entered the intersection less than a mile from her house when an 18-wheeler ran the red light on Old Beaumont, crushing her Chevy Cavalier. Marenco's husband, Guillermo Gomez, tried desperately to reach her by her phone.
GUILLERMO GOMEZ: (Through translator) I called her and called her and called her, but she never answered.
SCHNEIDER: It would be hours before Gomez learned his wife was dead. The Texas Department of Public Safety says the company involved, R & F Quality Transportation, shouldn't have had a truck on the road at all. It had racked up a string of safety violations in the months leading up to the crash, ranging from defective brakes to a driver smoking marijuana behind the wheel. When R & F failed to address the problems, state officials ordered it to shut down, an order the carrier ignored. All attempts to reach R & F for comment failed.
The death toll on Texas highways had been falling for decades as car companies build safer vehicles. That trend shifted into reverse as the boom in fracking began to heat up. The Texas Department of Transportation says that between 2009 and 2013, the state's traffic fatalities rose by 8 percent, even as those in most other states continued to file. And deaths linked to commercial vehicle crashes, like trucks, soared by more than 50 percent over the same period. The boom has triggered a huge demand for both tractor-trailers and drivers. Larry Busby is the long-time sheriff of Live Oak County in the heart of the Eagle Ford shale region in south Texas.
LARRY BUSBY: People who have never been in the seat of a truck before got to school for two weeks, and they graduate. And now they're a truck driver, you know? Well, they're not a truck driver yet. They just passed the school.
SCHNEIDER: The Texas Trucking Association, an industry trade group, argues that the rising death toll has more to do with drivers sharing the road with trucks than with the truckers themselves. John Esparza is the group's president.
JOHN ESPARZA: There is a level of congestion that is rising all over the state, particularly in these areas of smaller counties that involve the oil field energy exploration. And it's causing folks that are not accustomed to that type of congestion to make unnecessary risks. And it's costing lives.
SCHNEIDER: Experts cite fatigue as another factor pushing up traffic fatalities tied to the oil and gas industry. Oil field workers often work 12-hour shifts, then pile into a company van to drive half-an-hour or more from their worksite to a hotel.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE RADIO)
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Two dead right now, several probably critical.
SCHNEIDER: In March 2013, nine Sanjel Corporation employees were returning to their hotel after an overnight shift in west Texas. A pickup truck hit their van, killing three. Alexander Gurevich is an attorney representing the victims' families.
ALEXANDER GUREVICH: To put men in a position of being fatigued and to be driving long-distance is not something that a company should do. And it shows a disregard for the safety of their employees.
SCHNEIDER: Sanjel says the van driver has testified that he was not fatigued at the time of the accident. Texas is struggling to find ways to improve safety on its roads without disrupting the oil industry on which so many jobs depend. The state's trucking industry backed a bill signed by Governor Rick Perry last year making it easier for regulators to strip rogue carriers of the permits they need to operate.
But denying permits isn't always enough. State officials ordered R & F Quality Transportation to cease operations last December, four months before one of its drivers struck and killed Vilma Marenco. Marenco's husband, Guillermo Gomez, is now raising their daughter alone.
GOMEZ: (Through translator) This has left a great emptiness for my daughter and me. The only thing I am asking for is a thorough investigation of all of this and that there be justice.
SCHNEIDER: Civil courts are often the only source of justice for victims' families. Few such accidents lead to criminal prosecutions. For NPR News, I'm Andrew Schneider in Houston.
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