Houston paper: Metro area worst in nation for traffic fatalities, speeding at fault

By Robbie Webber

Reporters from the Houston Chronicle looked at 16 years of national data for traffic fatalities, and they were shocked by the statistics for their area. Houston has the deadliest overall traffic safety record for the 12 largest metro areas studied, and ranks in the top half in all categories of crashes. They identify speeding as the principal factor in the region’s safety problems, although a number of factors combine to make the area deadly.

While distracted or drunk driving often make the headlines, everyday speeding is at the root of many crashes and is a contributing factor in many more. The Chronicle reporters point out that Houston’s traffic fatalities seem like an accepted fact instead of something that should be fixed:

The death toll is the equivalent of three fully-loaded 737s crashing each year at Houston’s airports, killing all aboard. Losing that many planes and passengers would lead to federal hearings, but the Houston roadway deaths are met largely with silence, other than the occasional warning from public safety officials to drive safely and be careful crossing the street.

But it’s not just individual drivers deciding to increase speed while others are driving more moderately. The article points out that long commutes, roadways designed to facilitate speed, high speed limits that are regularly ignored, and a lack of enforcement all encourage speeding. Contributing to the overall safety problems, political opposition has kept speed cameras and sobriety checkpoints from being implemented, and pedestrians and bicyclists often have no choice but to brave high-speed roads without accommodations just to reach destinations. The Houston metro also ranks 15th on the Dangerous by Design list of 105 deadly metro areas for pedestrians.

According to the article, enforcement of speeding, red-light running, and other moving violations is lax in Houston. This is due in part to Texas culture that prioritizes freedom—including the freedom to drive fast—and an aversion to traffic enforcement in general. But enforcement is important to keeping the roads safe. Several studies have found a correlation between enforcement levels and road safety.

Houston is a growing metro area, but the traffic crashes are growing far faster than the population—up 50 percent since 2010. As development spreads out, and distances grow to reach destinations, the temptation to speed grows as well. Houston is far from the only metro area with these problems, but it is at or near the top by any measure, and the lessons from this excellent article can be applied elsewhere to make roads safer and save lives.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.