Crunch City

With Houston's aggressive motorists and anything-goes attitude, it's no accident that the rate of car crashes is out of control

Indeed, the urge to stomp on the gas can seem almost uncontrollable at times. "We are raised that way," says Dr. Leon James, a.k.a. Dr. Driving. He's a professor of traffic psychology at the University of Hawaii and co-author of Road Rage and Aggressive Driving. "When does driver's ed start? In high school? No! When you're an infant, being driven by adults. When you watch TV and see drivers behaving badly. When you see car commercials. Everyone knows the fantasy: Be very aggressive and very independent. That's our philosophy of driving."

Wright is in a hurry. He needs to get back to work at the Cutting Edge barbershop in the mall. Wright moved from Indianapolis a few years ago because his wife had job opportunities here. She just left him, so now he's saving money to return to Indiana with his five-year-old son. The longer Wright is gone from work, the less hair he cuts. The less he cuts, the less money he makes. The less money he makes, the longer it will take him to get away from his damn ex-wife.

Fougerousse says local motorists just don't drive defensively.
Deron Neblett
Fougerousse says local motorists just don't drive defensively.
Fougerousse says local motorists just don't drive defensively.
Deron Neblett
Fougerousse says local motorists just don't drive defensively.

His turn signal is not on, even though he's planning to merge into the exit lane for 59 South to his right. Better to act like he's going to keep heading north on 610, toward the Galleria. Maybe the people waiting in line will think he changed his mind at the last minute and decided to take 59. Folks tend to get salty when you cut in line. Especially at this intersection, which handles about half a million vehicles each day.

Wright suddenly notices a car at a dead stop ahead of him. At rest in the middle of the West Loop, in the middle of the day. It's an Infiniti Q45, also trying to cut into the right lane. Wright slams on his brakes. The tires slow their roll, but the Neon keeps moving, sliding forward on the slippery pavement.

"Everybody is running, running, running," says Gene Walker, who has been operating Safe-Way Driving for 29 years. "Running to beat the next guy. Fighting to get over here and make this delivery or give this speech or make that sale. Then you're supposed to get in the car and slow down? From a psychological standpoint and a human standpoint, it's just hard to do. It doesn't work that way."

Walker hails from Hull-Daisetta, Texas, population about 500. He got his driver's license in 1957, when he was 14 years old, and came to Houston in 1962 to attend Rice University. "There weren't a lot of freeways," he says. "People weren't in so much of a hurry back then. Back in my old town, if you called the plumber, he might not come for two, three days. If you hollered at him, he might not come at all. In Houston, if the plumber's not there in an hour, you call another one."

Patience may be a virtue, but it didn't turn swampland into the fourth-largest U.S. city overnight. Statistics indicate that Houstonians are in a bigger rush than the rest of Texas. Speeding was a factor in 39 percent of Houston accidents, according to DPS stats from 1999. Statewide that number was 33 percent.

Running traffic lights contributed to 11 percent of all Houston accidents, compared with 6 percent statewide. In many big cities, the traffic lights have an overlap period, when the light is red in all directions. In Houston, those lights are only in place at the busiest intersections. Disregarding traffic lights was the third-most-common factor in local accidents. Statewide, running red lights was fifth on the list.

"Most fatals come from the side doors," Vargas says. "From people beating the lights. When I'm at a light and it turns green, I look both ways before I move."

Captain Mark Fougerousse, who heads the police department's Traffic and Accident Division, says officers monitor the worst intersections and deploy extra units at those locations to combat red-light running. The federal government also has recently authorized more funds to pay overtime for extra radar officers on the freeways.

Fougerousse says Houston motorists just don't drive defensively. "They're not taking a look for the other driver. In the daytime, there are a few million people on the road, and it gets to be a real busy place. The roadways are crowded; the margin for error is a lot tighter," he says. "There are a lot of rear-ender accidents, people are rushing to work, maybe they're late, maybe the weather is bad. You can't drive beyond the conditions that are out there."

The west side seems be the worst. In 2001, according to police statistics, Houston's most dangerous intersection was Harwin at Hillcroft. West Sam Houston Parkway at Bissonnet was no. 2. More of the most dangerous intersections were along freeway service roads. They included the Southwest Freeway at Wilcrest, Hillcroft and the Southwest Freeway, Beechnut at West Sam Houston Parkway, the Southwest Freeway at Fondren, the West Loop South at Braeswood, and the South Loop at Kirby.

"They have more money over there [on the west side], and they think their shit don't stink," says Fernando Davila, who has driven a tow truck in Houston for 20 years. "There's a lot of arrogance over there," says fellow wrecker driver Jose Herrera. That attitude contributes to wrecks, they say.

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