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It's official – Houston drivers are awful!
In its Sunday, April 18, 2004 edition, the Houston Chronicle reported that the Houston area exceeds the national average in the number of serious crashes and traffic fatalities. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Houston had 12.45 fatalities per 100,000 population in 2002 – far higher than the fatality rates for Philadelphia (8.11), Chicago (7.90), Los Angeles (7.24) or New York (4.39). In fact, Houston-area drivers are two and a half more times likely to be killed or injured in a traffic accident than the national average.
Chain reaction collision on Houston freeway in 2002. Houston's traffic
accident rate is 2.5 times US average...
Motorist carelessness costs Houston drivers dearly, as they pay higher auto insurance premiums than anywhere else in the state of Texas. That includes the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, which had 11% fewer crashes than the Houston area in 1999 despite having 12% larger population.
Any way you look at it, Houston's drivers are collectively among the nation's worst. And nowhere is this fact any more evident than along the city's new 7.5-mile light rail line. According to the Houston Chronicle of January 17, 2005, there were 63 collisions last year (2004) between cars and light rail trains along the corridor – and "more than two-thirds were caused by motorists making illegal turns or running red lights." (Several other accidents have involved pedestrians.) This translates into a collision rate that is about 25 times the national average for light rail systems, according to the Federal Transit Administration. While several other cities, such as San Jose, Portland, Boston, New Orleans, Denver, and Salt Lake City, all have street-running light rail and streetcar systems, drivers in those cities for the most part seem to be able to avoid crashing into their trains. Unfortunately, that's not the case in Houston. The propensity of local drivers to smack into the new train system has even become national news.
Houston's sizeable contingent of METRO haters have jumped on this fact, claiming that the high accident rates prove that METRO's light rail system is fundamentally unsafe and is therefore a failure. Local rail foes meticulously chronicle the train's accident record, and even the monorail enthusiasts are getting their licks in, claiming that Houston would have been better off if former Mayor Bob Lanier hadn't killed the monorail that had been proposed for this corridor 15 years ago.
Of course, all but one of the collisions that have occurred so far have
been the fault of drivers and in almost every accident the driver has
been ticketed for a traffic infraction such as making an illegal left turn
or running a red light. The Chronicle also reported on April 18 that
the Main Street corridor, along which the light rail line travels, was a
dangerous place to drive even before the rail line was installed, with
an average of 7.3 automobile collisions per day between 1998 and
2000. In the Texas Medical Center alone, the crash rate per vehicle miles traveled was 58%
higher than the Houston regional average.
Furthermore, the Texas Transportation institute (TTI), which was recently hired by METRO to assess safety along the METRORail corridor, found no fundamental design flaws in the rail system itself that would contribute to the high rate of car-train collisions.
However, these facts are generally ignored by local rail critics. METRO built the train down Main Street, they argue, so therefore METRO, not the city's careless drivers, is to blame.
Of course, it bears noting that even if collisions involving METRORail weren't an issue, the rail critics would invariably find something else to complain about. There are a lot of people around Houston who hate public transportation in general and rail transit in particular and who therefore think that METRO is a big waste of taxpayer money (and, if the letters to the editor in the Chronicle are any indication, a lot of these people happen to live in communities outside METRO's service area, such as Kemah and Friendswood, but that's a different subject). These critics, who are still sulking from their defeat at the polls in November 2003, as Houston-area voters narrowly approved the METRO Solutions rail expansion program in spite of a huge anti-rail campaign, will always complain about rail and will never admit that it has any benefits whatsoever. Many of these folks even want a re-vote of last November's referendum. Even if they aren't METRO's fault, the high number of accidents along the rail line just gives opponents more ammunition for their never-ending anti-rail, anti-METRO crusade.
Unfortunately, the high accident rate along the rail line is a problem to which there is no easy solution. METRO has already implemented additional safety measures prescribed by the TTI report, such as traffic signal adjustments, signage modifications and pavement markings, but the accidents persist as drivers continue to run red lights and ignore the "no turn" signs. The TTI report goes on to say that even in spite of these adjustments, "there will likely still be a large number of collisions in the area due to unfamiliar drivers and high traffic volumes." it should be noted that there is evidence that these safety improvements are paying off – the April 10th Houston Chronicle reports that there were only 13 collisions on the Main Street light rail line in the first quarter of this year, "half the number recorded during the first three months of 2004...."
What will it take for Houston drivers to smarten up and put an end to what one pro-rail website calls a "motor vehicle Destruction Derby?" Better traffic enforcement would be a good start, but it's not likely to happen anytime soon. As any long-time Houston driver knows, the enforcement of traffic laws is very lax. Freeway speed limits are uniformly ignored, motorists frequently block downtown intersections during rush hour, turn signals are seldom used or regarded, slow drivers rarely move to the right to let faster traffic pass, and drivers run red lights with impunity. Rare is the driver that yields, doesn't tailgate or doesn't chat on their cell phone while driving in heavy traffic. God help you if you are a bicyclist or a pedestrian in Houston, and if you do end up in an accident odds are pretty high that the other driver won't have car insurance. The Chronicle reports that the Houston Police Department's Traffic Enforcement Unit has only 40 motorcycle officers, compared with more than 400 in Los Angeles. The Houston Police Department has limited resources, given the city's current budget deficit of $150 million, and has understandably chosen to make crimes-in-progress responses and neighborhood patrols a priority over traffic enforcement. There is no money at this time to hire additional officers.
There are other factors that contribute to Houston's high accident rate. The region is growing at a rate faster than its road network can adequately handle; road construction simply cannot keep up with demand. This creates more congestion and dangerous driving conditions as area roads are carrying traffic volumes they were never designed to carry. Houston is also a very international city, with scores of foreign drivers who might not be familiar with American driving customs. Unfortunately, many are illegal immigrants who drive around town with no license, no insurance and no training.
Better driver training, in fact, would help everyone. Driver education is not taken nearly as seriously in Texas as it is in other countries or even other states. Typically, almost all the training drivers receive is when they are still in high school; supplemental training programs such as defensive driving courses have been relegated to comedy clubs and online courses and are used almost exclusively by traffic offenders who wish to avoid paying a ticket. And there's no training whatsoever when it comes to light rail. It's not a part of statewide driver education curriculum and isn't even mentioned in the Department of Public Safety's driver handbook. Understandably, some motorists experience confusion when they come upon the light rail, simply because they've never been around it before.
But even if the city's financial situation does improve and enforcement of traffic laws does
become a higher priority, and even if funds were somehow available to build larger and safer
roads anywhere and everywhere they are needed, and even if more emphasis was placed on
driver education, there is still the peculiar driver culture of Houston that must be confronted
before things can improve. Sprawling, low-density Houston, where oil is cheap and land is
plentiful, is a city built for the car. As Joel Garreau, author of Edge City and The Nine Nations of
North America, once wrote, "going to Houston and not renting a car is like going to Venice and
not renting a boat." Travel distances are far, people are always in a hurry and owning a car is in
most cases a necessity. Within this landscape, a culture has arisen wherein the automobile –
and by extension the automobile driver - reigns supreme. As such, there clearly exists a sense
of selfishness, arrogance and invulnerability on the part of many Houston drivers. Anything that
impedes the progress of these drivers – be it traffic laws, pedestrians, bicycles or other drivers
– is looked upon as an annoyance and is oftentimes disregarded. This mindset, which is
reinforced by lax traffic enforcement, invariably leads to a high number of accidents and
fatalities as drivers begin to feel that they can get away with their poor and selfish driving habits.
This mindset also at least partly explains why so many of the collisions between cars and trains
have been a result of motorists who blatantly disregard traffic signals and signs that clearly say
While it would certainly have been preferable to completely eliminate the friction between the train and Houston's abysmal drivers by grade-separating the railway, there were physical and financial barriers which prevented that from occurring. Elevated rail generally costs twice as much to construct as street-running trains (monorail costs even more, as the Las Vegas project has shown), has significant aesthetic impacts, and would have been impossible to implement through some areas such as the Texas Medical Center in any case because of existing pedestrian bridges. A subway alternative costs four or five times as much to construct as street-running rail and, as Tropical Storm Alison showed, could be prone to flooding during heavy rains. Given METRO's financial constraints (remember that Rep. Tom DeLay, the pro-highway, anti-rail congressman from the suburbs, prevented METRO from receiving any federal funding to build the line), grade separation simply wasn't an option. The experience of the Main Street line, however, is causing METRO to seriously consider grade-separated alignments for the system's extensions, including a subway through downtown.
The bottom line: if METRO did one thing wrong during the installation of the light rail system, it
was to seriously underestimate the stupidity of the average Houston driver. I can only hope that
there is indeed a learning curve associated with driver behavior around street-running light rail,
and that the number of accidents begins to taper off before anybody gets killed.
Thomas B. Gray is an urban planner in Houston, Texas and webmaster of his own website at the following URL:
This commentary has been adapted from one of his essays. Thomas Gray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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