Our deadly roads

It was a bad year last year.

Last year was the second deadliest on record for vehicle fatalities on Texas roads, reflecting a lethal trend here and throughout the nation, especially in large urban areas.

In 2021, 4,480 people died in collisions on Texas highways, the most since 1981, and a 15 percent increase in fatalities over the previous year, according to the Texas Department of Transportation, which has tracked vehicle deaths since 1940.

Nationwide, fatal vehicle crashes in the first half of 2021 were up 18.4 percent over 2020. These statistics include crashes in which pedestrians are killed.

Traffic safety engineers say there are a multitude of reasons for the increase – some obvious, some almost counterintuitive, and some embedded in drivers’ habits and attitudes, making them harder to measure.

Driving under the influence of alcohol continues to be the second most common factor in deadly highway collisions in Texas, just behind “failed to stay in single lane” and ahead of speeding.

Robert Wunderlich, director of the Center for Transportation Safety at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, is one of many experts who noticed an alarming trend in transportation safety during the coronavirus pandemic. As more people stayed home and roads emptied, lonely highways became more enticing for those who like to speed.

When vehicles collide, “just a ten percent increase in speed, say from 60 mph to 70 mph, results in a 38 percent increase in fatal crashes,” he said.

“It’s just physics and the dissipation of energy and what that does to the human brain in a crash,” he said. “People have simply got to slow down. People should enjoy the journey more and not try to arrive five to 10 minutes earlier.”

Put another way, some cities may have experienced the same number of crashes year over year, but during the pandemic many of the crashes occurred at significantly higher speeds, making them more deadly, both for vehicle occupants and, obviously, for any pedestrians involved.

In 2021, at least 821 pedestrians died in auto collisons in Texas, up 15 percent over 2020 totals — the same increase seen in auto-bicycle deaths — though both years were influenced by the pandemic.

Freeway crashes are not the biggest problem, and researchers often wryly point out that urban traffic jams at rush hour slow down traffic and demonstrably save lives.

Rush hour or not, city expressways have the best safety performance per vehicle mile primarily because people are traveling in the same direction and freeways usually have more safety features in place, Wunderlich said.

“What we’re more concerned about is that person driving 70 on a two-lane, undivided rural road with no shoulders,” said Wunderlich, adding that single car collisions under those conditions result in a “disproportionately high number” of deaths in Texas.


A more surprising development in the recent increase in road fatalities is that fewer drivers are wearing seat belts. Wunderlich and his researchers have confirmed this with “observational studies” in the field, not just surveys.

One theory suggested by some researchers is that the people who have stayed at home during the pandemic are generally better educated, more risk-averse and less likely to reject government-imposed safety protocols, such as face masks and seatbelts.

Wunderlich isn’t saying that the state’s increase in fatal car crashes has been driven by unmasked, blue collar guys in pickups speeding to their jobs, but he suggests it’s a hypothesis that might deserve some study.

“There are definitely more risk-takers on the road, more people, perhaps, who said, `I don’t need to wear a mask, I don’t need to wear a seatbelt, to hell with all that,’” he said.

Can’t say I’m surprised by that last observation. Texas’ population increase, which is fueled by people moving here at least as much as the birth rate, is also a factor, as a lot of the new people are also drivers. Vehicle size isn’t cited in the story, but we know that bigger vehicles are more deadly – again, it’s a simple matter of physics – and we have a lot of those in the state. That may be more of a perennial factor than a reason for the recent increase, though. I don’t have a good prescription here. Cities like Houston have taken and are taking steps to lower speeds within their limits and to encourage walking and biking and transit, but there’s an awful lot to do to make a dent in the car culture here, and non-car transportation options are vastly outspent and out-prioritized overall. Be careful out there.

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6 Responses to Our deadly roads

  1. Bayard Rustin says:

    I ate at a well-known steakhouse near the 610 frontage road and San Felipe on Thursday evening. People were leaving the venue absolutely plastered. Having lost a sister to a drunk driver, I was appalled and wondered where in the hell were the police.

  2. robert says:

    One late night at House of Pies, there were many police cruisers in the parking lot and they were on their dinner break.

    I asked why they weren’t out doing enforcement, as all the bars were closing. I always waited out those hours rather than be on the road with so many drunks, never seen so much swerving on the highways than I have in Houston. Their reply to me was, if they want to kill each other let them, to write a DUI is a lot of paperwork and would take them all night to process 1 DUI.

    So something is obviously wrong….

  3. Frederick says:


    Did you call out the policeman on the spot?…Did you take down the name of every policeman for reference and pass it on to the appropriate department at HPD?

    Or did you determine that you were a but of a wuss and half-assed it by just asking them one tough question on such an important topic to you and then you backed down?

  4. Flypusher says:

    I can’t recall any recent stories about 2 drunk drivers smashing into each other and taking just themselves out. But I can remember too many where they take out innocent drivers and passengers. Saw a recent news story about the one year anniversary where one of those drunks smashed into a car stopped at a red light and slaughtered a mother and 3 of her children. IIRC, the drunk survived.

  5. C.L. says:

    Frederick appears to be a troll.

  6. policywonqueria says:


    Re: embedded in drivers’ habits and attitudes, making them harder to measure.

    To the extent embedded attitudes and habits are a cause of road accidents and carnage, this can explain an increase over a short time span only if there is an increase in the population of drivers with the relevant embedded attitudes because “embedded” by definition would be a stable factor in each person.

    Further, if the suspect attitudes can’t be measured, this factor may be useless in practice. And even if measurable, the implication, of course, would be that attitudes shown to lead to bad driving would have to be changed. How does government do so?

    It would be more practical to focus on actual (bad) behavior, and work on reducing recurrence by individuals already found to have engaged in bad behavior that violated the law, and therefore provides legitimate grounds for behavior-modification interventions by government/courts: Remedial driver ed, restricted licenses, license suspension etc..

    Re: “Driving under the influence of alcohol continues to be the second most common factor in deadly highway collisions in Texas, just behind “failed to stay in single lane”

    Sounds plausible, but inexact. Analytically, the problem with the statement is that the two behaviors are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, one manifestation of intoxication is an impairment in the ability to stay in lane. Another one may be more aggressive driving, risk taking, and misjudging distances and nearby or oncoming drivers’ behavior.

    Additionally, alcohol may reduce drivers’ ability and willingness to engage in defensive driving which can and does prevent accidents that would otherwise be caused by reckless or negligent drivers. This can lead to more accidents and deaths even when the impaired driver is not committing any other traffic violations or is not over the legal blood-alcohol limit. The implication for public safety policy analysis is that it cannot be limited to the determination of “cause” of accidents in terms of legal responsibility.

    On that score, the ready availability of emergency assistance and medical care, and the quality thereof, also affect the death rate. As do car age and safety features. But, as which “embedded habits” these factors can’t explain drops or surges if they are constant over time.

    One key question, however, concerns political feasibility and cost and cost/benefit.
    Obviously, making DWI illegal is not enough. It’s illegal already. Self-driving cars may be the ultimate solution; though not yet.

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