“You’ve got to be very defensive. You’ve got to look as much in your rear-view window as your front windshield,” says a partner at Permian Lodging, which builds and operates what are called “man camps” in the area. He says Route 285 in the Permian Basin might be the deadliest highway in the U.S.
The route is used to carry supplies to and from West Texas’s oilfields. Last year, as the price of crude oil surged, crashes in the area surged as well. As many as 93 people were killed in truck accidents last year, just on the Texas side of the Permian Basin. That’s a 43-percent jump from 2012 numbers.
Class A drivers are in enormous demand for hauling water, sand, pipes, fuel and the many other supplies needed in the area. According to Midland County’s sheriff, commercial drivers can easily make $120,000 a year.
“Some of them are speeding, some of them are too tired to be driving, but they’re making money,” he told Bloomberg. “Some of these guys are just trying to make as much money as they can.”
Driver fatigue is a serious problem, especially among inexperienced drivers — and there are many. Oilfield service companies work with local community colleges to help people get their commercial driver’s licenses to keep up with demand. Since the pool of drivers with two or three years of oilfield experience has dwindled, companies hope that training will make up for lack of experience.
“When you’ve been in the oilfield for ten to 11 days, working 14 hours a day, you just become so tired that you’re not thinking straight,” said one experienced trucker. “You’re just brain dead, because you’re living off four to six hours of sleep.”
Another problem is that the roads in the area weren’t designed for the increased traffic in oversized trucks.
Although the Texas Department of Public Safety is working on the issues, it “can’t build new roads or widen roads overnight,” said a spokesperson. Moreover, “the roads don’t have time to keep up” with all the new, heavy-duty traffic, he added. The department has lowered some speed limits and put additional troopers on the roads.
Truck maintenance is another contributor to the problem. “The upkeep on an oilfield truck is a lot more than an on-the-road truck,” notes the coordinator of one driver training program. “Little things end up turning into big things.”
West Texas booms and occasionally busts, and local infrastructure resources struggle to keep up. Similar problems are likely to come up when the U.S. Army Futures Command comes to Austin or whenever new demands are made on existing roadways.