At the end of August, Texas was about 1,100 traffic fatalities behind last year’s total of 3,015. Bell, Coryell and Lampasas counties currently have fewer fatalities than their 2011 totals, too.
“Overall, Texas is doing well in traffic fatalities, but one fatality is too many,” said Ken Roberts, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation, which rolled out another accident awareness campaign last month.
According to a news release, each month TxDOT will post the year-to-date number of vehicle-related deaths on more than 700 highway message signs for one week. As of Aug. 30, that total was 1,918, according to TxDOT.
Bell County, which has the largest number of fatalities among three local counties at 31, has 15 fewer traffic-related deaths than in 2011. But it remains ranked 10th statewide for the most traffic fatalities, a position in which it closed 2011.
Lampasas County, which reported four fatalities in 2011, has two this year. And Coryell County reports the largest percentage decrease so far, with eight fewer fatalities than its 12 in 2011.
“The fact we are one of the top counties, is the growth,” said Carroll Smith, a spokeswoman for the Killeen Police Department.
Killeen so far this year has experienced nine fatal collisions with 12 deaths, she said.
Harpin Myer, a senior state trooper for the Texas Department of Public Safety, agreed with Smith’s explanation about Bell County’s high ranking for traffic fatalities, and said growth also can be a contributing factor to accidents in Coryell and Lampasas counties.
“You have more people out there, and more population out here, and have more folks coming back from overseas,” said Myer, who noted the population is constantly in flux because of Fort Hood deployments. “Anytime you have more folks out on the road, (more accidents are) going to happen.”
Bell County, however, is not alone in holding the same rank for the highest number of fatalities in the state. Harris County, home of Houston; Dallas County; Bexar County, home of San Antonio; and Tarrant County, home of Forth Worth; all kept their first-through-fourth rankings, respectively, in most traffic-related deaths in 2011 and so far this year.
Travis County, home of Austin, has increased from the sixth most residents killed in traffic-related incidents to fifth, even with 20 fewer fatalities this year.
Comparing the number of fatalities to a 100,000-person population shows that Bell, Lampasas and Coryell counties rank in the bottom 50 percent of all Texas counties for traffic-related deaths in 2011 and 2012.
During 2011, Lampasas had the highest per capita rating of the three with 20.1 fatalities per 100,000 residents. The county dropped to about 10.1 per 100,000 so far this year.
Coryell County had 15.7 per capita fatalities in 2011, followed by Bell County, with 14.6 fatalities per capita.
In 2012, Coryell County dropped to 5.2 traffic-related deaths per capita. Bell County dropped to 9.8 so far in 2012.
Causes of accidents
Harker Heights Police Chief Mike Gentry, Myer, Smith and Roberts all listed the same contributing causes for fatalities on Texas roadways.
“There are essentially three reasons for bad crashes,” said Gentry, whose policing jurisdiction experienced two fatal crashes last year and one so far this year. “One is speed, the other is intoxication, and (not wearing) seat belts. What would be a fatal accident without a seat belt becomes a survivable one with a seat belt. We cannot over-emphasize the value of wearing seat belts.”
Smith echoed Gentry’s statement, adding any safety measures, including wearing motorcycle helmets and proper use of car seats, can help save lives.
There have been a significant number of motorcycle accidents in Killeen, she said, and in some cases, people weren’t wearing any protective gear.
A fourth more recent cause of fatal or severe-injury accidents is driver distraction, said Gentry.
“Law enforcement will tell you time and time again that the No. 1 reaction from a person (causing an accident) is ‘I didn’t see it,’” said TxDOT’s Roberts.
People are texting, calling people, not paying attention to work zones or road signs; there are a lot of different forms of distraction, said Gentry.
One of the major ways to curb the number of fatalities is traffic enforcement.
Officials from Killeen, Harker Heights, Copperas Cove and the Texas Department of Public Safety all use special enforcement tools, such as statistical data of where people speed to try and encourage drivers to obey the law.
“Our goal is not to enforce the law by the letter of the law but the spirit of the law,” said Myer, who said special enforcements around Central Texas seem to be working. “Our goal is to educate the public. When we have a visual presence out there ... most of the time people take heed of that.”
Gentry said seeing patrol cars reminds people to drive the posted speed limit, put on their seat belts and obey warning signs.
But enforcement is not the only educational tool; law enforcement agencies also participate in public events.
TxDOT spearheads safety campaigns to help reduce the number of fatalities.
“Safety is No. 1 in everything that we do. In order to maintain an efficient transportation, we have to maintain safety,” said Roberts.
That’s why TxDOT started its recent message board campaign, and also why people hear about “Click It or Ticket,” “Drink. Drive. Go to Jail” and “Talk. Text. Crash.”
“All of these slogans that you hear are all about increasing safety, and increasing awareness and reducing fatalities,” said Roberts. “The vast majority of accidents are preventable. Operators are just not operating their vehicles in a safe manner.”