Highway safety secrets exposed

TxDOT gives every section of road it maintains a pavement condition score, but that information is not public record

kxaninvestigates
Investigates - Highway Safety Secrets

Highlights

From Jan. 2011-Dec. 2016, there have been 815 crashes on a 12-mile stretch of US 290 between SH 130 and Elgin

MAP: Of the deadly crashes in Central Texas in the past 5 years

Find the conditions of the roads you drive on


In October of 2015, Carolyn Voutsinas was driving on US 290, making her way to her home in Elgin. She called her husband to let him know that she was en route, but he never talked to her again.

“A couple hours passed and she did not come,” said her husband Evangelos Voutsinas. Carolyn died instantly after a tow truck traveling the opposite direction on US 290 in Manor hydroplaned, crossed the median and struck her car head-on. “She was everything for me," Evangelos said with tears in his eyes. “Anyway, what happened, happened you know. It's an accident. You don't have control with an accident."

Crash on US 290 that killed Carolyn Voutsinas (KXAN File Photo)
Crash on US 290 that killed Carolyn Voutsinas (KXAN File Photo)

While it was an accident, Voutsinas and his lawyer believe it was an accident that could have been prevented. They claim in a lawsuit against the Texas Department of Transportation “the road surface was so worn and slick that it was dangerous and defective thereby contributing to the accident.” The lawsuit also states “the agency knew or should have known of the dangerous condition” of the road surface and “the condition of the roadway where the tow truck was being driven was a special defect and posed an unreasonable risk of harm to the public.”

The family of Jose Lopez Garcia is also suing TxDOT. Garcia, his wife and three other family members were traveling east through Manor on US 290 in May 2016 when their pickup truck hydroplaned off the road and flipped over, killing Garcia and his eldest son. The family claims in their lawsuit the accident was “caused by the condition of the road surface and/or negligence” of TxDOT and there had been “at least four prior fatalities on this stretch of Highway 290 since October 2015.”

The parties in both lawsuits claim TxDOT “failed to adequately warn the driving public of the road’s condition and failed to make repairs to the road surface to make it safe.” The lawsuits say after the fatal crashes occurred, TxDOT implemented changes to US 290 that included a roto-mill of the road to "improve its safety in wet weather.” TxDOT will not confirm to KXAN what kind of safety work was done on US 290 in the Manor area. TxDOT does not comment on pending litigation.

Both lawsuits allege that the condition of the highway was a leading factor in the crashes. KXAN wanted to find out how often those deadly crashes could’ve been prevented if the roads were in better condition, but we discovered TxDOT keeps safety information about the roads it maintains a secret.

Infographic - Crashes on US 290
The two fatal crashes were not isolated incidents. TxDOT’s crash data shows there has been 815 total crashes between January 2011 and December 2016 on the stretch of US 290 between SH 130 in far southeast Austin and County Line Road entering Elgin—10 of those crashes were fatal.

Road Conditions

From January 2012 through December 2016 there were 1,261 fatal crashes that killed 1,417 people on highways in Central Texas counties. It’s difficult to determine whether or not the conditions of the road surfaces were a major factor in any of the 1,261 fatal crashes because the safety factors behind them are part of what TxDOT calls "confidential highway safety information."

While TxDOT doesn't release road safety data, KXAN was able to obtain the agency's pavement condition score data for FY 2016 for the Austin area from a source. Agency officials confirmed it was their data but said it was released in error.

TxDOT gives every section of road it maintains a pavement condition score. The condition score TxDOT gives sections of its roads is based on how distressed the road surface and sub-surface are along with how smooth the ride is on the road. How the roads are ranked:

  • 90-100: “very good” condition
  • 70-89: “good” condition
  • 50-69: “fair” condition
  • 35-49: “poor” condition
  • below 35: “very poor” condition

In Central Texas, there are currently 138 stretches of TxDOT roads with conditions scores between 1 and 49.

Transportation researchers like Dr. Kara Kockelman at the University of Texas, who help TxDOT figure out safer road and infrastructure designs, can get some safety data from TxDOT, but must sign an agreement saying they won't release it to anyone. But TxDOT won't even allow researchers access to the pavement condition data.

“I think the more transparent our agencies can be the better it is for everyone,” Dr. Kockelman told KXAN. “Pavement, if it's bumpy can kind of send the car in the wrong direction if the driver is drowsy or lets go of the steering wheel for a second."

TxDOT Pavement Scores FY 2016
Other states like Florida and California do release road safety and pavement condition data. Even the city of Austin releases the pavement condition scores of roads it maintains to the public.

kxan-web-i-35-fatal-crashes-infographic-320x400-020817-ceb

"That information, as a matter of law, from federal law, to state law, and our attorney general opinion is exempted from being released,” said James Bass, executive director of TxDOT.

Federal law states highway safety information cannot be used in a lawsuit. Texas law states information is not public "that would not be available by law to a party in litigation with the agency."

Neither federal or state law is aimed at keeping highway safety records from the public. It only states it can’t be used in court.

“The federal law, I've read it, it basically says you can't use the safety information we're talking about in a lawsuit,” said Collister. “Correct,” Bass responded. “Then why not release it to the public?” Collister asked Bass. “Because, if we release it to the public, two days later it would show up in a lawsuit against the department,” Bass replied.

"It's important to know that if we see any roadway, bridge, that is not safe, it's going to be closed down,” explained Bass.

Lawmakers like State Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, are supposed to have access to any state record. But she says it's been difficult for her to get information on highway fatalities from TxDOT as well. She is curious as to why the agency won’t release the highway safety information. “I would like to hear more about the basis for that position,” said Rep. Israel.

As a member of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Israel promised to review TxDOT's transparency this session. "I hope that your analysis can help shed some light on how we can communicate and share data better, especially when it comes to public safety,” Rep. Israel told KXAN.

Central Texas Deadly Crashes

In the past five years, 1,417 people have died on Central Texas highways. These are all the fatal crashes during January 2012 through December 2016.

 

 

 

How Does the Road You Drive Fare?

The data that KXAN received regarding pavement conditions has a lot of information that is not the easiest to use. The spreadsheet below has one tab that has all the roads in Central Texas and there are tabs that break down the lowest scoring roads by county.

We will walk you through how you can find out the condition score of the road you travel on often.

Steps:

  1. Open this TxDOT map: http://www.txdot.gov/apps/statewide_mapping/StatewidePlanningMap.html
  2. In the "Maps" section, click on "Reference Markers" under the Overlays header.
  3. Consult the spreadsheet to find out which road you're looking for (all of the roads are inputted with six characters)
  4. Once you find the road you're looking for, go to the "Search" function, choose "On System" layer and type in the six character road, e.g. BF1431 (you might have to choose a corresponding county). The map will navigate to the road you selected.
  5. Consult the spreadsheet to find your BRM (begin reference marker) and ERM (end reference marker). Once you get those numbers you can zoom into the area and find the corresponding marker on the map and that is where the road test was conducted.

Other Items that TxDOT Won't Release

Pavement conditions aren't the only items that TxDOT doesn't release. This is a list of some general categories that are not released to the public:

  • Highway Signal Reports
  • Highway Safety Improvement Program data and reports
  • Pavement management information system data and reports
  • Traffic Control Devices Inspection Checklist
  • Bridge inspection records
  • Fatal Crash Review Team documents
  • Safety Review Team documents
  • Traffic Signal Warrant Analysis
  • Traffic light inspections/deficiencies (form 599)
  • Rail / Highway Crossing Safety information
  • Traffic Safety Studies
  • Complaint Letters regarding safety issues
  • Notifications from peace officers regarding safety issues
  • Information used in planning safety improvements
  • Traffic Survey Count Analysis reports

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