On Jan. 6, 2015, Simon Rodriguez was trying to pass a car on U.S. 290 East near Airport Boulevard when he drove into oncoming traffic and struck another car head-on. Despite the help of two bystanders, ambulances and the county’s Star Flight medical helicopter, he died of his injuries.
Rodriguez was the first of 102 people to die in 93 crashes on Austin roads in 2015.
Traffic-safety advocates, police and city officials became increasingly alarmed as week after week the pace of deaths grew faster than in past years. Historically, police saw hundreds of crashes every month with only a few fatalities. But in 2015, Austin averaged nearly two traffic deaths a week.
Austin’s final traffic death toll of 2015 was up 62 percent from 2014. By comparison, preliminary figures from the first half of 2015 show a nationwide increase in fatal crashes of about 8 percent. The U.S. saw 16,225 deaths from January to June, compared with 15,014 U.S. traffic deaths in that period in 2014. That year ended with 32,675 such deaths nationwide.
The unprecedented year of deadly traffic in Austin has left officials scratching their heads. Some noted that a strong economy paired with falling gas prices had drivers logging far more miles and time behind the wheel.
Others pointed the continued explosive population growth, paired with the little to no expansion of highway infrastructure, as a possible cause. Yet when population is factored in, the per capita rate of traffic fatalities had been trending downward in the past 20 years.
What’s troubling is that the spike in 2015 pushed the per capita traffic death rate to 11.5 per 100,000 residents, higher than the 6.5 rate in 2014 and higher than it has been since 2001, when it was 11.6, Austin police data shows.
Despite public pressure for answers, authorities have not identified what’s caused the spike and the work of a task force, whose sole purpose is finding ways to eliminate traffic deaths, became mired in internal politics.
According to police data:
- Although more than half of the victims were in a vehicle, nearly 30 percent of the fatalities were pedestrians.
- Impairment from drugs or alcohol were a factor in 60 percent of the fatal incidents, for both drivers and pedestrians.
- About a third of the crashes involved drivers with either a suspended or no driver’s license.
Austin police Cmdr. Art Fortune keeps color-coded notes on his desk for all 102 victims, creating a grim, matter-of-fact account of the deadliest year on city roads since 81 people died in 1986. It’s a file that Fortune, who leads the Police Department’s Highway Enforcement Command, wished didn’t have to look at so often. But, he said, it ensures that the crash victims are always on his mind.
Austin police and other city departments launched more than 20 safety initiatives last year, such as the hands-free cellphone ordinance that targeted distracted drivers and more frequent no-refusal patrols that sought to curb drunken driving.
Nothing seemed to be working. Before the summer had ended, Police Chief Art Acevedo implored drivers and pedestrians to make safer choices after traffic deaths topped the 63 killed in 2014.
“We want you all to take a look in the mirror and ask, ‘Am I being personally responsible?’” Acevedo said in August. “We’re going to continue doing our very best, but the only ones that are going to make a difference are the ones we serve.”
The number of fatalities continued to outpace those in previous years. By late September, the 1986 record number of 81 deaths was eclipsed.
The deadliest day on Austin roads last year was Aug. 30, when Daniel Rubio, 28, and three others were killed in a fiery crash at the Arbor Walk shopping center in North Austin. The four men were traveling east on North Capital of Texas Highway (Loop 360) when their car smashed through the concrete barrier of the northbound frontage road of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) and went airborne. Their vehicle crashed into a building before catching fire. Rubio, the father of two girls, and his friends had been celebrating his birthday.
Like that incident, most of the fatal crashes happened in the overnight hours from midnight to 6 a.m. Most victims were in their 20s, and nearly 70 percent of the victims were men, statistics show.
Police identified some of the factors contributing to last year’s fatal crashes, such as speeding, drunken driving, failure to stop or yield, improper maneuvers and distracted driving. Some crashes were connected to multiple factors, which made it more difficult for authorities to identify a clear pattern or determine an immediate solution.
City Hall responds
Sending officers to spend hours along Interstate 35, the U.S. 183 frontage roads or Texas 71 didn’t seem like a solution, authorities said. Having officers parked on or near a highway, waiting for something to happen, wasn’t likely going to stop anything when the data didn’t indicate a specific location, time of the day or one common cause behind the crashes.
“These (fatalities) happen evenly throughout all our sectors,” Fortune said.
At City Hall, the rising number of traffic deaths was discussed again and again during the year at several meetings.
As part of the 2015-16 city budget, the City Council approved $3.8 million for improvements at five of the worst or most dangerous intersections:
- North Lamar Boulevard and Parmer Lane.
- North Lamar Boulevard and Rundberg Lane.
- Frontage Roads at U.S. 183 and Cameron Road.
- I-35 southbound access road and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
- Manchaca Road and Slaughter Lane.
According to data from 2012 to 2014, those intersections had almost 250 accidents and one fatal crash. Two of the 2015 fatal crashes happened at those intersections.
The changes planned by engineers include adding plastic pylons to prevent dangerous turns as drivers leave adjacent shopping centers as well as building medians, making some turns tighter and creating turn-only lanes, officials said.
Because 34 percent of last year’s fatal crashes involved a driver with a suspended license or none at all, Fortune said he and other Police Department officials have considered a policy change that would let officers impound the vehicles of anyone caught driving with a suspended license or without a record of having a driver’s license.
Police also want to get pedestrians off concrete medians. It’s not illegal to stand on a median in Austin, though it is illegal in other places, such as Hays County.
“We find that to be a dangerous spot,” Fortune said.
Austin embraces Vision Zero
At end of 2014, about 65 volunteers from various city departments, public safety agencies, businesses and community groups formed the Vision Zero task force. Their goal is to eliminate all traffic deaths by focusing on education, infrastructure and law enforcement.
The concept started in the early 2000s in Sweden and has been adopted by nearly 40 U.S. cities, including New York, where Mayor Bill de Blasio credited the program for a continued decrease in traffic fatalities.
Throughout the year, Austin’s Vision Zero held monthly meetings, led by the city’s Planning and Zoning Department, and analyzed traffic data to spot any patterns. But on June 1, tragedy hit close to the heart of some members on the task force.
Janice Elizabeth Collins was killed while crossing South First Street near One Texas Center, where several city offices are located. As Collins crossed the road, a driver experiencing a medical episode struck and killed her.
Collins was part of the city’s legal department.
“It’s the sort of issue that it is almost impossible to not have been touched personally by it,” said Francis Reilly, the senior city planner who became the head and public face of Vision Zero.
Some critics say setting a goal of ending traffic deaths is lofty but pointless. However, Reilly argues that any reduction is a success, and that it would be callous to make any number of deaths acceptable.
“All traffic deaths are preventable,” he said.
In spite of Vision Zero’s urgent mission in the middle of a traffic safety crisis, internal city politics stalled its issuing of recommendations on how to eliminate traffic deaths.
A sudden change in oversight — from the Planning and Zoning Department to Austin’s Transportation Department — caught task force members off guard. The city manager made the switch after learning Vision Zero might recommend re-engineering roads the group identified as Austin’s most dangerous.
Jim Dale, assistant director of the Transportation Department, said the change occurred once the task force’s duties shifted from research to action.
Vision Zero’s solutions for the traffic safety crisis won’t be released until February, when the group says it will offer a plan to Austin’s Mobility Committee that likely will include increasing traffic enforcement, encouraging stiffer prosecution of violators, redesigning Austin’s most dangerous roads, having a public awareness campaign and doing further data analysis.
Frustration, anger, loss
For dozens of families who lost loved ones to hit-and-run drivers, those answers will come too late.
Rosaleigh Solis and Victoria Tobar lost their father, 39-year-old Abun Tobar, in March after he was struck by a car while he walked along East Anderson Lane near Burnet Road.
The driver stayed at the scene, but Tobar’s daughters filed a lawsuit at Travis County’s state District Court a couple of months later. They claim the city is at fault because a malfunctioning streetlight made the road too dark, and the driver “failed to control his speed.”
Tobar’s daughters and at least four other families have engaged in legal battles against the city, drivers and private companies. But Lynn Pagan and several other relatives of hit-and-run victims don’t have anyone to hold accountable.
Pagan’s son Derek was a 29-year-old Fort Hood sergeant. In April, he and a friend were spending a weekend in Austin to attend Life in Color, a paint and music party at Carson Creek Ranch.
After the party, he walked along U.S. 183 near East Riverside Drive. He was hit by at least one car that drove away, police say. A couple on their way home from a wedding saw him, pulled over and called 911. The case remains open as police continue looking for the driver or drivers who hit Pagan and fled.
“It’s been eight months. It hasn’t gotten any easier for us,” said Lynn Pagan, who lives in Pennsylvania. “We would probably be there every day with posters until we find the driver.”
FACTORS IN FATAL WRECKS
Investigators say one of more of these factors contributed to the city’s 93 fatal crashes:
- Drugs or alcohol: 56 incidents (drivers and pedestrians)
- Speeding: 31 incidents
- No seatbelt: 18 incidents
- Hit-and-run: 8 incidents
- Ran red light: 4 incidents
Source: Austin Police Department
This story reflects the American-Statesman’s commitment to examining public safety issues raised by troubling events. Recent stories have focused on calls to improve warning systems in the wake of deadly flash floods, an in-depth analysis of homeless persons’ deaths and a detailed look at how police officers successfully suppressed a spree shooter in downtown Austin.