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

The biggest knot on the west side is by the Galleria. Janelle Gbur, a Houston spokesperson for the state Department of Transportation, remembers the days when Dillard's was Joske's and she could ride horses near Westheimer. "When the highway system here got overburdened in the 1970s, the public was used to getting in a car and going where they wanted. When they got stuck in traffic, they got mad. So they said, 'We'll build our way out of it.' Now, there's literally no way that more building can pull us out of our mobility crisis. We've got to have other things to look at."

Like rail. But even as the number of cars continues to increase -- 3.74 million in the six-county Houston area in 2001, up from 3.67 million in 2000 -- Houstonians shy away from rail in favor of improved freeways. Gbur says a rail line that was suggested in place of the new Katy Freeway HOV lanes received support from only 7 percent of the public.

The state transportation department is in charge of changing signs on the freeways but has no authority to enforce speed limits. "In fact, most agencies say their resources in this respect are maxed out anyway," Gbur says. "In many areas, the resources aren't available to sit and write tickets. I don't know that we have anything to address that in reality."

Walker: "Everybody is just running, running, running."
Deron Neblett
Walker: "Everybody is just running, running, running."
The West Loop always poses dangers.
Deron Neblett
The West Loop always poses dangers.

Wright's Neon smashed into the back of the Infiniti, crushing his front bumper back into the radiator. The hood buckled like an accordion. His airbag inflated, singeing his jeans. His knee banged the underside of the dashboard. But the worst was yet to come.

Since the breakup of his marriage, Wright had been living with his girlfriend, Ebony. The car belonged to her. She had bought it recently, used. It was not yet paid for.

Wright's son was in day care way out on Beechnut, past Beltway 8. His girlfriend was at work near West Bellfort and Hillcroft. And Wright was stranded on the side of 610 with no way to collect them, no cell phone -- and no insurance. His girlfriend didn't have insurance either. Neither do 21 percent of motorists in Texas, which ranks ninth among all states in the percentage of uninsured drivers.

At first, Wright was remorseful. "If I had to do it over again, I would have been in the turn lane and not tried to take advantage of the people in line," he admits. "I should have waited patiently like everyone else. I was just trying to get back to work."

The other driver called 911 on his cell phone. Police officers and tow trucks arrived on the scene.

In 20 years driving a wrecker, Fernando Davila has seen it all. Six teenagers decapitated in a pickup-truck freeway crash. Cars flipped on top of their drivers. Babies killed because they weren't in infant seats. Always, the drunks. One of them smashed into the back of his tow truck on the side of a freeway, killing the driver and his wife. After all these years, all this death, Davila can look at the speed of traffic on the 610 South Loop by Hobby Airport and tell what kind of accident has just taken place on Beltway 8.

Jose Herrera has been in the business only two years, but even he has stories. He towed one guy's car this past New Year's Eve then responded to a motorcycle crash on New Year's Day, and it turned out to be the same guy. Then the guy tried to drive off on the bike, lost control and smashed into Herrera's truck.

"Everyone's just agitated in Houston," Herrera says. "There are so many cars, so many things to do, so little time. People are always in a hurry. They can't find enough time."

He scoffs at the notion that the problem will be solved with lower speed limits. "Not unless they put 100 lanes on each side of the freeway," Davila says. "There's gonna be more wrecks," Herrera agrees. "People will be agitated because they're so used to going fast. They'll get frustrated. Most road rage comes from people going too slow."

The wrecker drivers get a lot of abuse from rubberneckers when they're parked at the scene of an accident. "Hey, you put a lot of sheep in the field, you get a lot of wolves," says Davila's father, Jesus, who's also in the business. But Jeanette Rash, who helps run the family enterprise, Fast Tow, and is the legislative chairperson for the Texas Towing and Storage Association, says that accidents account for about 2 percent of the 500,000 vehicles towed in Houston each year. The rest of the work for our 1,200 wreckers comes in removing cars from private property, like downtown parking lots, and from police actions, such as arrests and other vehicle seizures.

"But these accidents cost us millions and millions from the congestion they cause," Rash says. "People lose work time from getting stuck in traffic; pollution increases. And then there are all the secondary accidents from people watching the first one. That's like 20 percent of the total."

Still, "people are going to be hard-pressed to go 55," Rash says. "I don't know how the police are going to [enforce] it. I'm worried about it. Law-abiding citizens are going to get flat run over."

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