With accident rates soaring on some roads in the state's bustling oil fields, the Texas Department of Transportation is stepping up efforts to lower speed limits on particularly dangerous routes.
Under a recently adopted emergency rule change, the agency can decide in four weeks to reduce speed limits by up to 12 miles per hour on some roads, bypassing its normal review process that typically takes months.
“Basically, if we know the crash data is higher than the state average on a particular road, then we could move faster,” TxDOT spokeswoman Veronica Beyer said.
The change only covers rural two-lane, two-way roads that are less than 24 feet wide and are part of the state highway system. Traffic spawned by the state's drilling boom has made small roads in oil areas increasingly hazardous.
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Drilling a natural gas or oil well typically requires thousands of trucks traveling to the well site, hauling millions of gallons of water and other materials. Between 2009 and 2013, fatal accidents involving commercial vehicles spiked more than 240 percent in the major drilling regions in South and West Texas, while climbing just 50 percent statewide.
Increased oil field traffic also tears up the roads, reducing safety further, TxDOT says. At a meeting of the Texas Transportation Commission in October, Deputy Executive Director John Barton attributed the spike in accidents to energy sector traffic and a lack of funding for road repairs. The conditions create “an imminent safety condition that requires us to be more nimble,” Barton said.
TxDOT normally uses a standardized approach to lowering speed limits, including measuring the speeds of as many as 125 cars in several locations along a road. Under the emergency order, TxDOT can lower speed limits without a full-blown study on roads with higher-than-average crash rates.
TxDOT officials declined to identify specific roads where speed limits will be lowered. Bee County, in the heart of the Eagle Ford Shale, appears likely to see changes soon. TxDOT singled out the county in its official notice of the emergency rule change. The crash rate on rural, two lane, two-way roadways in Bee County is three times higher than the statewide average, according to TxDOT.
Quickly cutting speed limits is just the latest approach TxDOT has taken to reduce accidents in the drilling regions. In 2013, agency officials announced it was converting some paved roads along popular drilling truck routes to gravel, arguing that the conversion made the roads safer. In response to widespread criticism, the agency put the project on hold after converting two road segments to gravel, and then canceled it outright in October.
Rural roads in the drilling regions also are likely to see increased maintenance work next year. Last month, 80 percent of Texas voters approved a proposition dedicating some oil and gas production taxes to the state highway fund. A first payment of $1.7 billion should be transferred to the fund later this month. State officials have proposed allocating 15 to 20 percent of that money to roads in the state’s drilling regions.