CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — Booming production of oil and natural gas has exacted a little-known price on some of the nation’s roads, contributing to a spike in traffic fatalities in states where many streets and highways are choked with large trucks and heavy drilling equipment.
An Associated Press analysis of traffic deaths and U.S. census data in six drilling states shows that in some places, fatalities have more than quadrupled since 2004 — a period when most American roads have become much safer even as the population has grown.
“We are just so swamped,” said Sheriff Dwayne Villanueva of Karnes County, Texas, where authorities have been overwhelmed by the surge in serious accidents.
The industry acknowledges the problem, and traffic agencies and oil companies say they are taking steps to improve safety. But no one imagines that the risks will be eliminated quickly or easily.
“I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon,” Villanueva said.
The energy boom, fueled largely by new drilling technology, has created badly needed jobs, lifted local economies and drawn global manufacturers back to the United States. But the frenzy of drilling activity contributes heavily to the flood of traffic of all kinds that experts say has led to the increase in serious accidents and deaths.
Not all of the crashes involved trucks from drilling projects, and the accidents have been blamed on both ordinary motorists and heavy equipment drivers.
But the accidents have devastated families: two young boys crushed to death last year by a tanker truck in West Virginia; a Pennsylvania father killed by another tanker in 2011; a 19-year-old Texas man fatally injured in 2012 after colliding with a drilling truck on his way to work. A month later, on the same road, three retired teachers died in another collision with a truck.
Fatalities outstrip growth
In North Dakota drilling counties, the population has soared 43 percent over the last decade, while traffic fatalities increased 350 percent, to 63 last year from 14 ten years ago. Roads in those counties were nearly twice as deadly per mile driven than the rest of the state. In one Texas drilling district, drivers were 2.5 times more likely to die in a fatal crash per mile driven compared with the statewide average.
This boom is different from those of the past because of the hydraulic-fracturing process, which extracts oil and gas by injecting high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals. It requires 2,300 to 4,000 truck trips per well to deliver those fluids. Older drilling techniques needed one-third to one-half as many trips.
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