As fatalities rise on state roads, action plan could help

SAN BENITO — Air bags, anti-lock brakes and crumple zones are just some of the safety features we expect on all new vehicles these days, and without question they’ve saved thousands of lives.

So why are the number of highway fatalities and serious accidents rocketing upward in Texas?

Because of those statistics, the Texas Strategic Highway Safety Plan, adopted last week by the Harlingen-San Benito Metropolitan Planning Organization, aims to reduce the death and injury toll from those traffic accidents.

The Harlingen-San Benito MPO’s action to pledge to implement the state highway safety plan was not a surprise, considering the organization was required to do so in order to meet new federal regulations which push improved traffic safety at all levels.

“As some of you know, two legislative acts passed by Congress — Map-21 and Fast Act — require the state and MPOs to set performance targets and performance measures,” J. Joel Garza Jr., the Harlingen-San Benito MPO’s director, told the board. “There were 18 different measures but the ones that are due this month are the safety aspects.”

The board voted to adopt the state safety program which was created by a team from TxDOT, that agency’s Save a Life program, the Center for Transportation Safety and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

“Texas is facing a crisis in road safety,” the report from 2016 reads. “Fatalities have steadily increased from just over 3,000 to over 3,700 since 2012 despite extensive efforts to improve road user behavior and upgrade roadway conditions.”

Road safety and education

The number of fatalities in Texas last year totaled 3,801, and projections for 2018 put the number of people who will die on state roadways at 3,891. By the time 2022 rolls around, if nothing changes, the projection is 4,327 people will be killed on highways that year.

The Texas Strategic Highway Safety Plan is built around seven emphasis areas — distracted driving, impaired driving, intersection safety, older road users, pedestrian safety, roadway and lane departures and speeding.

The plan’s focus from 2018 through 2022 is to reduce highway fatalities and serious injury accidents by around 2 percent.

The state highway safety plan was formulated in 2006 and has since been updated.

Bond Safety Program

The state incorporated some of its early recommendations to devise a plan passed by the Texas Legislature for the 2009 Bond Safety Program which was funded with $600 million and widened nearly 600 miles of highway, installed 290 miles of new concrete or cable median barriers, installed 101 new left-turn lanes and converted nine projects from four-lane undivided highways to four-lane divided highways.

The plan also served as the basis for $105 million spent for education on alcohol and drug use while driving, motorcycle safety, pedestrian and bicycle safety, speed control and school bus safety, among others.

Educating drivers, motorcycle and bike riders and pedestrians on safety is a big part of what the highway plan calls its “vision of zero deaths on our roadways.”

“We at TxDOT have a safety specialist, Ruby Martinez, who goes around to various cities and makes presentations, and in addition we have (public information officer) Octavio Saenz,” said Pete Alvarez, district engineer for TxDOT’s Pharr district and a member of the Harlingen-San Benito MPO board.

Have something, say something

Alvarez encouraged the MPO board members to contact TxDOT prior to community events like last weekend’s Jalapeno 100 bicycle race, promising that if at all possible TxDOT would set up a booth and provide information on road safety.

“For those not funded directly, we have staff who are designated to make presentations throughout the entire year,” he added. “During spring break, for example, they’re at the Island talking about motorcycle and pedestrian safety.”

Alvarez said highway safety is a responsibility for everyone, and encouraged board members to reach out to TxDOT with ideas on how to improve safety in highway projects under construction or those being planned.

“If you all have recommendations, ideas, things that could be added to a project that’s within our region, then by all means we welcome those ideas,” he said. “As an example, I was at the Brownsville MPO this morning, Boca Chica in Brownsville, and we were talking about doing a project there that’s going to have a raised median and sidewalks.

“We love the input from the community here in Harlingen-San Benito and surrounding areas,” he added. “Please share your ideas and we’ll do our best to accommodate them.”

Texas highway fatalities

2014           3,536

2015           3,516

2016           3,775

2017           3,801

2018           3,891 (est.)

2022           4,327 (est.)