Traffic is a fact of life in Houston, and so are traffic accidents. In 2011, approximately 15% of all vehicles accidents in Texas occurred in Houston, making its roads more dangerous than any other city’s streets in Texas. The two leading reasons cited are the city’s 11% annual population growth in recent year and a higher than average per capita drunk driving rate. Harris Country has the highest rate of drunk driving deaths in the nation, according to data gathered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
And the numbers show that traffic safety in Houston is worsening. In 2011, there were 53,581 traffic accidents in Houston. In 2014, that number jumped to 70,774.
While officials try to understand the causes of these crashes, what authorities do know is which Houston intersections are the most dangerous. Using data compiled by the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT), Houston media organizations have found where the most accidents occur.
THE TERRIBLE TEN
Keep a look out when traveling through these 10 Houston intersections:
610 and Wallisville Road
Highway 59 and Highway 1960
Westheimer and Highway 6
Louetta Road and I-45
Highway 225 and Beltway 8
SH-249 and FM 2920
Westheimer Road and Beltway 8
Highway 6 and FM 529
Beltway 8 and Genoa Red Bluff Road
U.S. Route 90 Alt and Beltway 8
These 10 intersections are responsible for a significant number of crashes every year, and while there’s no arguing with the data, there are some interesting observations at first glance.
First, several of these intersections are at Beltway 8 or are within a few miles of it. Second, none of the intersections inside the 610 Loop make the list. Speed seems to play a major role. Some of the more congested roadways during peak travel hours are inside the 610 Loop. Drivers cannot travel as fast as they can on Beltway 8 or further out into the Houston suburbs. Additionally Beltway 8 is a heavily trafficked road during both rush hour commutes, even though many drivers will only access it for short stretches before they hit the next major highway, which allows there to be natural traffic gaps. Higher speeds translates to more crashes.
But there are problems with these intersections in particular, and they deserve a closer look to determine how the city can reduce their impact.
THE ANATOMY OF AN INTERSECTION
Drivers spend much of their time passing through or stopping at intersections, and one may look exactly like the next. But there are few standards when it comes to planning and building an intersection. There is a general concept to creating a safe intersection and it typically includes the following:
The intersection must not be too short. During heavy traffic periods, drivers can clog up short intersections and force others to slam on their brakes even when they have a green light. Highway 225 and Beltway 8 is notorious for its short length and cumbersome turn lane.
The intersection must not be too long. Longer intersections require more time to pass through, which means drivers may still be traveling through the intersection once cross traffic is given the green light. Genoa Red Bluff Road and Beltway 8 is a rather long intersection at 300 feet from one side to the other, and it’s the most dangerous intersection in Houston.
The intersection must be clearly visible from a distance. If drivers cannot see traffic lights and other cars from a distance, they may be forced to react suddenly. The intersection at Highway 59 and FM 1960, for instance, is sitting at the top of an incline, shielding it from view until drivers are right on top of it.
The intersection’s traffic lights must be reasonably timed. Rapid light cycles may help keep traffic flowing steadily, but drivers often don’t expect them, making it more likely that they enter the intersection through a red light. Westheimer at Highway 6 and Highway 6 at FM 529 have been the subject of numerous complaints to the city due to their rapid light cycles.
The time of day, local traffic patterns and the presence of popular businesses in the area can affect accident numbers as well.
It’s a lot for drivers to account for when on the road, but there are ways to mitigate the danger when passing through an intersection.
STAY ATTENTIVE, STAY ALIVE
Design quirks and technical issues at intersections can affect accident rates, but driver error is still the number one cause of vehicle crashes. Driver error is a catch-all term that can refer to a number of risky behaviors, all of which are preventable and should be avoided, especially when moving through intersections. Some of these dangerous behaviors include:
Speeding – The average road speeds in Texas are the highest in the nation, and when drivers travel through intersections at high speeds, they are unprepared for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers that may not notice the light has turned green.
Making unsafe left turns – Left turns are among the most dangerous maneuvers on the road, and require careful timing. When a driver either doesn’t pay attention to oncoming traffic, or attempts to beat a cyclist or vehicle, they can end up in a head-on collision. Accidents that involve left hand turns are often considered the fault of the driver making the turn.
Using cell phones – It’s well known that cell phone usage has a negative impact on driving skills, but the statistics are still staggering. According to the National Safety Council (NSC), 25% of all traffic accidents are due, at least in part, to cell phone use. This includes talking, texting, web surfing and, yes, Pokemon Go.
Driving while impaired – Again, it is well known that alcohol or drug use can affect a driver’s ability to navigate roads safely. It’s particularly problematic at intersections, especially for pedestrians. Half of all pedestrian deaths at intersections are caused by drivers with a BAC of over .10, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. In 2012, 38% of all Texas traffic fatalities involved alcohol, when data from the NHTSA is considered. That same year, TXDOT tracked 2,809 alcohol-related crashes in Harris County, or one nearly every three hours. 175 people lost their lives in those accidents.
It’s impossible to account for every risk, but removing driver error from the equation will maximize a driver’s likelihood of remaining safe, even when frequenting Houston’s most dangerous intersections.