As dangerous as Austin’s roads may seem, they could be much, much worse, when you compare them to Houston roads. Just a few hours to the east sits one of the most dangerous areas for motor vehicle accidents. According to a special report from the Houston Chronicle, Houston averages 12 traffic fatalities every week, making H-town one of the most — if not the most — treacherous cities for traffic deaths. By comparison, Austin’s crash rates seem fairly tame.
What factors make Houston roads so much more perilous than our own highways? FVF looked into the issue, seeking to understand what factors affect traffic death rates in Texas’s urban areas. Here are some of the questions we asked and what we learned.
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How do Austin traffic fatality rates compare to Houston?
In 2016, Houston witnessed a total of 713 traffic-related deaths. By comparison, Austin experienced 79 fatalities, as reported in the Austin Police Department’s 2016 Traffic Fatalities Analysis. In Texas as a whole, there were a recorded 3,794 motor vehicle traffic fatalities — meaning that Houston accounted for around 18 percent of total traffic deaths in the state. And Austin? Only 2 percent.
Of course, Houston is a much bigger city. The Texas state capital was sitting at just under a million residents in 2017, whereas Houston’s population measured at over 2.3 million residents the same year. Still, even when you look at traffic deaths per capita, the Houston area is still a proportional outlier.
The state of Texas as a whole shares Houston’s deadly reputation. In 2017, almost 4,000 people died on roadways in the Lone Star State — an average of around 10 people a day. As the nation’s largest state, we certainly have more miles of roadway than most other states. But when you look at traffic deaths as a percentage of our road share, Texas accidents comprise around 1.9 percent of all motor vehicle fatalities in the country. Needless to say, we still have a long way to go to improve deadly crash rates in our state.
What Factors Affect Houston’s High Fatality Rate?
Like most public health issues, Houston’s high traffic fatality rate isn’t due to one single factor; the nature of the city’s traffic, its population, and the attitudes of the city’s law enforcement all contribute to the issue. There are several potential causes.
- High commute times. Houston Chronicle reporters hypothesize that Houston’s long commutes may contribute to the problem. Commute times in the area average around 29.5 minutes each way, giving it the number-four spot on the list of longest commutes in Texas. The same survey has Austin coming in at an average of 24.9 minutes. That’s a full two minutes lower than the national average of 26.9 minutes.
- Population increases. Rapid population growth can also affect traffic accident rates, for obvious reasons: more vehicles on the road and fewer law enforcement officers per capita are a formula for traffic issues. Over the last decade, both Houston and Austin welcomed thousands of new residents to their city limits. Between 2011 and 2015, Houston ranked third on the list of US cities with the highest population growth. Austin also grew enormously, adding about 159 new residents a day in 2016, which experts say correlates with a spike in traffic deaths.
- Local law enforcement. There is a well-established link between traffic law enforcement and motor vehicle-related deaths. Houston traffic citations have dropped over the past three years, and city politicians oppose safety measures like automated speed cameras. By comparison, in 2016, the Austin City Council made it its mission to eliminate traffic deaths by 2025, launching the Vision Zero Action Plan. That plan included measures to reduce risk factors like distracted, impaired, or dangerous driving. Since its inception, Austin traffic fatalities have decreased by 25 percent.
Which Steps Will Lower Traffic Deaths?
While you’re probably safer driving around Austin than some of Texas’s other metropolitan areas, traffic deaths are still a global epidemic. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there were about 1.25 million traffic deaths in 2013. Motor vehicle accidents claim more lives each year than ebola has since it was first identified in 1976.
The WHO investigated traffic deaths across the globe and found several factors that correlate to better traffic fatality rates.
- Lower speed limits. WHO data shows that countries that have a national speed limit — and give local authorities the ability to reduce limits from there — have fewer traffic deaths as a rule. The US repealed federal speed limit laws in 1995, leaving it to states to determine their own speeds. That single act has resulted in a 17 percent increase in US traffic deaths. Without a national restriction in place, Texas has since raised limits on certain highways to as high as 85 miles per hour, giving our state the fastest average speed limit in the country.
- Tougher drunk-driving policies. Countries that have blood-alcohol concentration laws experience fewer fatal crashes, but that effect is exponentially increased when those limits are below the WHO best-practice BAC level of 0.05 g/dl. The US has a BAC limit of 0.08, which has an effect on traffic deaths: in the US, drunk drivers kill 29 people every day, according to the CDC.
As you can see, legislation actually has a big effect on motor vehicle accident rates. At FVF, we work hard to ensure that people who carelessly fail to abide by traffic regulations are, along with their insurance companies, held accountable for the damage they cause. If you’ve recently been involved in a motor vehicle collision, contact us today to learn how our expert team of legal professionals can help you navigate your case. We can’t stop accidents from happening, but we will make sure those who caused your accident are held to answer.