By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Wright is heading back to work, driving a 1997 Dodge Neon north on the West Loop. He's coming from getting his vision checked at the Wal-Mart off the South Post Oak Road exit. Well, he wanted to get his vision checked, but there was no optometrist on duty. Wright, 29, found out he needed glasses when he went to get his driver's license renewed. They told him to look into a little machine, and when he couldn't read some of the letters, they refused to re-up his license until he corrected his vision.
A light, fine rain is falling. The freeway asphalt is at its most dangerous. Better if it was pouring hard; that would wash away the mixture of oil, dirt and moisture that now coats 610 like a piece of wet plastic.
To get back to his job at Sharpstown Mall, Wright needs to exit 610 onto the Southwest Freeway. He's been down this road hundreds of times, so he knows there will be a knot of vehicles waiting to make him even later than he already is. There are five lanes of traffic; Wright needs to be in the second one from the right. But he cruises along in the middle lane, passing the long line of cars, waiting until the last minute to duck into the exit lane. It's a dance performed daily by thousands upon thousands of local drivers. Only this time, Wright is about to become another statistic on the treacherous roads of Houston.
Why are our streets littered with crumpled vehicles? Why is Texas in general -- and Houston in particular -- so dangerous? Why can't we all just slow down?
There are more answers to these questions than there are cars stuck in traffic. One thing seems certain, though: The situation is liable to get worse before it gets better. This month, workers began installing 55-mph speed limit signs on area freeways as part of a federal clean-air initiative. Some predict that the tangle of slowed-down drivers, hard-core speeders, ticket-writing police officers and rubberneckers could create the kind of chaos not seen since the government abolished the national 55-mph limit in 1995.
There were 45,228 motor vehicle accidents in Houston in 1999, the most recent year tabulated by the Texas Department of Public Safety. That's almost 125 wrecks per day. They killed 228 people and injured 55,358. That's 5.7 fatalities per 100,000 residents, and one of every 88 Houstonians involved in a wreck.
Among major Texas cities, only San Antonio, with 6.9 deaths per 100,000 residents, surpassed Houston's death rate. The rate in the Austin area was 5.3, and Dallas had 5.1 deaths per 100,000 residents. One in every 72 Houston residents was injured in a motor vehicle accident, more than in any other major city except San Antonio, with one in 59 people injured.
"Houston drivers are just nuts," says one insurance company representative from Austin. She didn't want her name used, fearing it would show an industry bias against Houston, which has some of the highest insurance rates in the state. Auto accidents in Harris County, plus the resulting medical expenses, cost insurers $679 million in 2000.
"You'll be in traffic on the freeway and see people driving up embankments to get to the access road," the rep says. "And that's not even the worst thing you see. It's crazy out there."
Texas usually leads the nation in motor vehicle fatalities. There were 3,769 people killed on Texas roads in 2000, the most recent year for statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. California is in second place, with 3,753. And it has nearly 33.9 million residents, while Texas has 20.9 million.
Alcohol was a factor in 50 percent of all fatal accidents in Texas, compared to a national average of 40 percent, says Bruce Shultz, a state NHTSA spokesman. Texas trailed only Alaska, with 52 percent, and Rhode Island, with 51 percent, in this category.
Mark Twain, of course, reminded us that "there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics." So in looking past the numbers, the first thing that separates Houston from most other places is attitude. Folks in this town are aggressive, arrogant and in a hurry. Call it the Enron syndrome. We identify with the cowboy, the wildcatter, the astronaut -- types not to be found in the slow lane.
"People down here are very aggressive. That's what makes Houston Houston," says Dennis Brown, a motivational speaker who specializes in "attitude training" for clients like Southwestern Bell, Exxon, Texaco, The Houston Business Council and Texas Southern University. "People here realize they have the opportunity to make their dreams come true, and they go after it. Houston has a swagger that other cities don't have."
Brown moved to Houston 25 years ago from a tiny town in Louisiana. "One of the biggest adjustments I had to make was on the freeways," he says. "You have to be more aggressive and know what you're doing, or someone will run right over you."
Valentino Vargas, who teaches at the local Bilingual Safety driving school, sees more trouble ahead with the lower speed limit. "It will make things more problematic," he says. "People will have to change their habits again. It's hard to adjust. Mentally they'll still want to go 60, 65 miles per hour. Plus they'll see other people cruising and not getting caught. It'll be like, 'Hey, let's go!' "
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.
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.
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."
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."
The police gave Wright a court date to determine whether he must pay for the damage to the Infiniti. As for the Neon, it was done in. The repair shop estimated the bill at more than the car was worth.
Wright went to an attorney who told him he had no case. "The other guy just has liability insurance, but he might try to push the issue," Wright says. "I ain't gonna let that happen. I'll just file bankruptcy or something. I can't be pushed into a corner."
Wright and his girlfriend rented a car until he could get his old clunker of a van running. Wright emptied his savings account and is waiting for his tax refund. When it comes, he'll make a down payment on a new car for Ebony. All told, the crash will cost him about $5,000. The move to Indianapolis has been indefinitely postponed.
This is Wright's third wreck. It probably won't be his last. "The other guy was a bad driver. He shouldn't have been driving like he was," Wright now says. "I was in my lane. If he wouldn't have slowed down, I wouldn't be in the situation that I'm in. The rain did not allow me to stop."