Traffic in Houston a week after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Photo: Justin Sullivan (Getty Images)

I was on the road a lot this week. I had an eight-hour round trip to Dallas on Tuesday, then a four-hour round trip to Houston Wednesday. Like most people, there are very few moments when I fully accept the danger and risk of death of driving down the road. It’s easier not to. In Houston, I couldn’t ignore it.

When I got back, I saw the Houston Chronicle statistically back that feeling up with a story about just how dangerous Houston’s roads are—the deadliest major metro area for drivers, passengers and anyone in the path of cars in the U.S., the report said. I knew I wasn’t overreacting.

I don’t know if I’m just more aware of my mortality as I age or if Houston’s roads have gotten exponentially worse in the past few years, but driving in that city felt like playing Blur in real life, minus the ability to respawn. Cars shot by each other at every speed—from the 65-mph limit to well into the 90s, I would guess—like asteroids. A Corvette passed me going at least 90 mph on basically the shoulder of the road because there were no lanes open. It was surreal.

All of this wasn’t just my imagination, since the Houston Chronicle reports that its city’s roads are wildly deadly. The stats the Chronicle found from the past 16 years say about 640 people die each year on Houston-area roads, and 2,850 are seriously injured. The average tally per week is 11 fatal wrecks and 12 deaths.

From the research the Chronicle did, it seems like one of the biggest problems in Houston is the attitude around all of this danger. From the Chronicle:

“There is a cultural Novocaine at work here in terms of complacency to highway fatalities,” said Deborah Hersman, former head of the National Transportation Safety Board. “Somehow with complacency, we just have not had the tipping point as a nation.”

Safety officials are alarmed by the death toll, says Jeff Weatherford, deputy director of Houston Public Works. But the full impact of the day-by-day tally of crashes and deaths often escapes the grasp of drivers, taxpayers and lawmakers.

“The (fatality) count, it’s up there,” Weatherford said. “But the public is not paying attention.” [...]

Above all, many drivers appear not to care. They ignore warnings to slow down and to put their phones away and pay attention to the road — in part because they don’t fear a penalty.

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The Chronicle reports that on a new section of a Houston tollway with a 70-mph speed limit, most drivers are going way above that number. The paper reports that the average speed rarely went below 70 mph in 2017, and that it hovered around 80 mph for most of the day. That’s the average, remember.

Higher speeds, within reason, can be a good thing for saving time, but not when everyone is going a far different speed than other cars around them. That turns into some kind of war with cars, where the faster ones shoot by either side of the slower ones, darting in and out of lanes without a second thought.

The Chronicle reports that another main issue with Houston’s traffic attitude is that people generally don’t fear law enforcement when driving dangerously. The paper found that Houston-area law enforcement sends out fewer officers for road enforcement and gives significantly out fewer tickets, even as the paper reports population and fatalities have gone up in the past two years.

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From the Chronicle:

Houston police officers ticketed 41 percent fewer drivers in 2017 than they did in 2012, even as the number of vehicle miles traveled in Houston grew 23 percent.

That reflects a national trend of less traffic enforcement, according to Hersman, the former chairwoman of the NTSB. Federal statistics show that the share of people coming into contact with police through a traffic stop dropped about 11 percentage points from 2002 to 2011. [...]

Harris County sheriff’s deputies, for example, issued 28 percent fewer speeding tickets in 2017 than they did in 2015, even though the county gained 100,000 people during that period. Houston police officers issued 16 percent fewer speeding tickets in 2017 than in 2015. Texas Department of Public Safety Troopers operating within the greater Houston region are the exception; they issued 11 percent more tickets for speeding than they did in 2015.

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The Chronicle report said law enforcement could do something like put up speeding cameras that give automatic citations everywhere, but that’s stepping into Big Brother territory. From the Chronicle:

“If we wanted to, we could put cameras every two miles and if you speed, bam, you receive a citation,” Rebecca Wells, director of traffic operations for the Texas Department of Transportation district office in Atlanta, said during a 2017 traffic safety conference. “The technology is there, but the heart is not there.”

No matter what the solution is, Houston’s roads are a problem, and it’s easy to see that even without the statistics behind it. All a person has to do to see how big of an issue the roads are is hop on a highway straight into town.

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The Chronicle has a lot more on Houston’s traffic-fatalities situation in a long, frankly terrifying in-depth report here. Next time I have to go to Houston, I’ll conveniently have something else scheduled that day.