Key congestion spots vulnerable to truck accident delays
One big rig in wrong spot can close freeway in instant, commuters find
September 26, 2014
With 2014 shaping up as one of the worst years for heavy truck accidents in Houston’s history, area drivers are facing almost daily reminders that all it takes to torpedo traffic in the city is one truck in the wrong spot.
More traffic, construction in key areas, and a booming economy are conspiring to create chaos on area freeways more frequently, leading drivers to detour and clog other roads as they struggle to free themselves from time-sucking heavy truck accidents.
That’s what happened about 7 a.m. Friday, when a road-striping truck caught fire along Loop 610 near U.S. 290, closing the southbound Loop and essentially cutting off morning commuters streaming in from the northwest.
“It was brutal,” said Nick Scurfield, who was headed to his office at a public relations firm near The Galleria.
Based on data from Houston TranStar, which oversees traffic management in the region and distributes congestion data online, there likely will be more truck accidents in the city by year’s end than in any other year.
With three months of the calendar year to go, 2014 is projected to easily surpass the 2013 total of 581 heavy truck accidents along Houston freeways. As of Friday, 528 had been recorded.
For months, officials have said the robust economy is putting more trucks on the road. The problem has surfaced in rural areas where energy exploration is leading to explosive growth, but also in urban areas like Houston where more people are living, more stores are opening and more goods are coming into ports.
Freeways are teeming with trucks hauling goods into and out of the area, and some spots along Interstate 45 and U.S. 59, for instance, are seeing an average of 17,000 or more trucks daily.
“As we have additional motorists on the roadway, the unfortunate link between increase in congestion and increase in miles traveled is likely to have an increase in the number of accidents and stalls as well,” said Raquelle Lewis, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation in Houston.
Areas near the Port of Houston are huge truck routes, but the trucks have relatively little other traffic to compete with. The major freeways in the more developed parts of the Houston area, however, require thousands of trucks to contend with tens of thousands of other vehicles each day.
When the trucks break down or cause lengthy delays on those major routes, the ensuing snarl of side-street traffic has a ripple effect on area drivers.
No way to get around it
Friday’s accident was cleared in less than six hours – relatively quickly given the hazardous materials involved – but it created a nightmare for many drivers.
“It’s not the worst place for an incident I can think of,” said TranStar spokeswoman Dina Massie. “That would be (U.S.) 59 south of there at the Loop. This is probably second-worst.”
Scurfield said he ditched eastbound U.S. 290, hoping to use Antoine and other side streets to get to work.
“As soon as I turned onto Antoine from 290, I saw nothing but stop-and-go traffic,” Scurfield said. “So I busted a U-turn and got back on 290, figuring maybe it wouldn’t be bad. It was bumper to bumper and not even moving.”
Forced onto northbound Loop 610, Scurfield said he did what it seemed everyone else was doing – exit at T.C. Jester.
“I could have walked faster than my car was moving,” he said.
Often, the gridlock is worsened because many people use the same routes to try to bypass it.
“Traffic is a lot like water in that it is going to flow to the place of least resistance,” Massie said. “Everyone ends up in the same place.”
With all the twists and turns, Scurfield’s normal 25-minute commute to work took about three times that on Friday – all because of a truck fire.
“When something goes wrong, it is utter catastrophe,” Scurfield said.
Heads-up from TranStar
In addition to accidents, the incidence of truck stalls – which often also tie up valuable freeway lanes – is also at record numbers. So far this year, TranStar has recorded 511 stalled trucks. The total for 2013 was 477.
A number of construction projects – such as one along Loop 610 where Friday’s accident occurred – are intended to reduce weaving or add capacity so it’s easier for vehicles to flow through the area.
Aside from preaching safety, officials lately have focused on clearing accidents in less time and warning drivers to avoid affected areas. TranStar often changes message signs along the freeway miles from an incident location to give people a heads-up so they can avoid the spot.
Scurfield said Friday’s incident made him a believer in checking road conditions early. While he was in traffic, he said, he was thinking of a smartphone app his friend used on a recent trip.
“I wish I had downloaded it,” Scurfield said.