In 21 Texas counties where drilling has recently expanded, deaths per 100,000 people are up an average of 18 percent. Across the rest of Texas, they are down by 20 percent.
For Villanueva, that means his county now has accidents serious enough to require air transport of victims three or four times each week, compared with only a few times a month before drilling operations took off.
In two Texas drilling regions, an average of 100 more people were killed in vehicle accidents in each of the last two years compared with before the boom.
When oil and gas are found, changes come fast. Drillers scramble to acquire leases and get the oil and gas flowing as soon as possible. Local service companies quickly marshal trucks and drivers to earn as much new business as they can while the boom lasts.
Counties and regions going through drilling booms simply cannot keep up. A weigh station stands on U.S. Route 2 in Williston, North Dakota, the heart of drilling country, but traffic on the highway gets backed up if the station stays open for 15 minutes, said Alan Dybing, a research fellow at North Dakota State University’s transportation institute. So it soon has to close, letting streams of unchecked trucks pass through.
Some experts say regulatory loopholes make things even worse. Federal rules limit the amount of time most truckers can stay on the road, but the rules are less stringent for drivers in the oil and gas industry.
“These exemptions make Swiss cheese out of safety regulations,” said Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
Every truck accident “is a tragedy and deserves serious attention,” said Steve Everley of the industry group Energy in Depth. He said oil and gas drillers and their suppliers have been working to reduce traffic and accidents by adopting safety programs, recycling more drilling water and building more pipelines to transport water.
Vehicle crashes are the single biggest cause of fatalities to oil and gas workers, according to a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Truck drivers aren’t the only ones getting blamed. In many cases, accident investigators found that motorists got impatient while following big trucks and took risks that led to accidents, such as passing on hills or curves, according to Robert Barnes, safety director for Pennsylvania’s Bradford County.
Some states are working to reverse the trend, and there’s at least one drilling region that appears to be getting safer.
In North Dakota, turning and climbing lanes are being added to give drivers a safe way to pass, and officials are planning to widen a stretch of U.S. Route 85. The Pennsylvania and Texas transportation departments have launched safe-driving campaigns.
Colorado’s Weld County, which lodged a record number of drilling permits last year but saw traffic fatalities fall to 30 from 39, to its lowest level in 10 years. Capt. Rocco Domenico of the Colorado State Patrol says the county has been the focus of a long-term safety campaign, and drilling there isn’t as concentrated or as intense as it is in other states.
On the day his sons were killed, William Saum’s wife had taken the boys to the YMCA to register for swimming and karate classes. The truck didn’t stop at the stop sign, tried to make a turn and flipped onto the family car. Police issued two traffic tickets but filed no criminal charges.
Saum and his wife waited until she was 40 to have children. Now she’s 49, he said, and “it’s not like we can have any more.”
Asked what he thinks of the drilling boom, he paused.
“I guess,” Saum said, “it’s good for the people who are making the money.”
Fahey reported from New York.