Houston Chronicle 5/31/14 By Dug Begley
A stalled car or accident, particularly when a large truck is involved, can slow a Houston motorist’s already sluggish commute to a crawl.
Traffic planners, law enforcement officers and truckers have recognized this problem for years. Now plans are in the works to ease congestion by reviving and expanding a successful freeway-clearing program and by increasing the focus on safe driving.
“At the end of the day, we want to get home to our family like anybody else,” said truck driver Stafford Wilson, chairman of Jetco Delivery’s driver committee, which develops safety policies in consultation with management.
The hope is to reduce the number of incidents that tie up traffic, then minimize the effects of those that inevitably occur. In 2013, Houston TranStar logged 15,209 incidents on area roads, an 8.2 percent increase from 2012.
Keeping traffic flowing amid a rash of accidents often falls to first responders and tow truck operators, who must work quickly to reopen lanes. City of Houston officials had great success starting in 2005 with the SafeClear program that towed stranded cars off freeway shoulders.
Budget constraints prompted the city to add a $50 fee paid by the vehicle owner for the tow program in 2011, and since then its performance has dwindled. In addition, the Metropolitan Transit Authority stopped contributing because state officials said the funding source could not be used for a freeway-clearing purposes.
Now transportation officials are devising a program, with Harris County and Houston law enforcement, for a regional freeway incident management program. SafeClear was limited to the city of Houston.
“We’re creating something similar to what Safe-Clear was, but it will not be SafeClear,” said Ashby Johnson, deputy transportation director for the Houston-Galveston Area Council.
The plan would call for tow trucks to remove, as quickly as possible, any vehicle broken down on freeway shoulders or travel lanes. The drivers would pay no fee; transportation officials would repay towing companies for the cost of the service.
Cost and savings
The program would cost between $11 million and $29 million annually, depending on the amount of law enforcement time required. The money would come from state and federal sources, some spent at the discretion of local officials.
The plan would be to phase in the program, potentially starting with peak hours of operation and expanding to full-time service as funding allowed.
Compared to the costs of drivers’ lost time in traffic, freight delays, wasted fuel and emissions spewed into the air, officials estimate a tow program saves $18 for every dollar spent.
Officials hope to have a firm plan for a regional freeway towing and lane-clearing program in June, Johnson said.
The best way to keep freeway traffic moving, however, is to prevent accidents, especially those involving trucks. Incidents involving heavy trucks increased at half the overall rate from 2012 to 2013, rising 4.1 percent to 1,187. Five months into 2014, however, TranStar had logged 606 truck incidents as of Thursday.
Already in 2014, nine people have died in accidents involving heavy trucks on Houston area freeways, compared to 10 in all of last year.
Truck drivers are starting to notice the upward trend, many said, and conversations are leading to some regional safety discussions.
Jetco president Brian Fielkow organized a safety summit on Thursday, attended by about 75 people. The meeting was meant to get freight executives and the companies who hire them engaged in roadway safety, he said.
“We have got to raise the bar on each other, and I think it starts at the top,” Fielkow said.
Clearing truck accident scenes is taking longer this year, in part because the latest collisions have spilled debris and required lengthy cleanups.
Truck fatality collisions on Houston roads this year have taken an average of 450 minutes — seven and a half hours — to clear, compared to an average of 270 minutes last year. Excluding accidents involving a truck, the average time to clear a fatal accident in 2014 has been about three hours.
In some extreme cases, truck-related delays have been devastating. A fiery truck wreck on April 8 that killed the rig’s driver closed eastbound U.S. 290 for 17 hours so crews could clean up the mangled tractor-trailer and clear the load of spilled apples.
Efforts to reduce collisions will require the trucking industry to assure that trucks are maintained in safe condition and operated by “qualified, safe, and attentive drivers,” said Darrell Borchardt, a senior research engineer with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s Houston office.
In addition, Borchardt said, police have to inspect and monitor roadways, to make sure everyone is following the law.
“Drivers of passenger vehicles and motorcycles need to better understand that trucks possess different driving characteristics than their vehicles and cannot maneuver and/or stop as quickly as a regular vehicle,” Borchardt said. “Driving behavior such as tailgating and cutting in front of trucks can be a forerunner of crashes.”