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Traffic Death Toll Rockets in Eagle Ford Shale Region

Since 2008, fracking operations (a method of retrieving natural gas from rock deposits) have exploded in south central Texas, in the communities surrounding the Eagle Ford Shale. Unfortunately, so have the number of traffic fatalities recorded in the area. And just as you might suspect, that fact is no coincidence.

In Karnes County, which is at the heart of the Eagle Ford fracking boom, 12 people have died in fatal traffic accidents since February 2012. In all of 2008, the year when energy extraction first began to take hold in the county, just one traffic fatality was reported to the Texas Department of Transportation. In fact, so many people have died on Texas 239 running south-east of the county, locals now refer to that stretch of highway as "the death trap," according to accounts shared in the Houston Chronicle.

Karnes County is not alone. There are over a dozen counties in the Eagle Ford shale area that have been inundated with fracking activity and, in turn, have experienced tragic rises in traffic-related deaths. In those counties where the traffic death toll has experienced the worst increases, accidents involving large commercial vehicles, like those used for fracking operations, are the culprits.

The figures are truly shocking. Since 2008, LaSalle County has experienced a 418% increase in traffic accidents involving commercial vehicles; McMullen County's commercial vehicle accidents have shot up a whopping 1050%. The exact number of fatalities resulting from these accidents is unclear, since deaths are only reported if they occur at the site of the crash, not if the victims die in hospital later on.

Local officials are struggling to understand what is causing the increase in accidents, looking beyond the simple explanation which would suggest that more cars and trucks on the road automatically translates to more crashes. They believe something more serious is going on, and want to stop it so that the roads through these small towns can once again be safe for drivers.

Several factors seem to be at play. Until recently, oil and gas industry drivers were allowed to work extended shifts, sometimes staying on duty behind the wheel for almost 24 hours straight. This put tired drivers on the roads, often resulting in tragic accidents when truck operators fell asleep behind the wheel, losing control of their enormous vehicles.

Moreover, until 2008, the counties in this region were small and sparsely populated; the roads that serviced them are hardly the types of industrial highways necessary to support the vast influx of large commercial vehicles. Making matters worse, the constant weight of heavily loaded vehicles puts additional stress on streets that were already insufficient, leading to even more accidents. In April 2012, for example, a large pothole on Texas 792 caused a vehicle to bounce wildly and eject some of its passengers. Two people were killed in the accident.

It may be easy to pinpoint some of the contributing problems, but correcting those issues is more difficult. Local officials want to keep citizens safe, but are scared to chase away the booming industry that has given a tremendous cash infusion to local economies. For now, police are hoping that increased traffic law enforcement can help curb some of the problems. The Texas Department of Safety has initiated a series of traffic sweeps in the Eagle Ford region, searching for any type of traffic violation. State Trooper Jason Rayes says that the initiative seems to be encouraging safer driving, at least for the moment. Whether small efforts like these can permanently curb the region's growing traffic issues, however, remains to be seen.