There are new questions about whether the Texas Department of Transportation is doing enough to protect drivers from roadside dangers after a string of deadly crashes have taken place where there are missing guardrails along the highway.
Earlier this year, an NBC 5 investigation identified nearly a dozen locations where concrete bridge support pillars were not protected by guardrails, even though state and federal guidelines seem to suggest rails should have been installed.
TxDOT agreed to install barriers in some of those locations after NBC 5 Investigates brought them to the agency’s attention.
Meanwhile, officials in Lake Worth, a community of 4,000 who host 600,000 drivers a day on Loop 820, are now asking whether guardrails might save lives in another location where several drivers have died.
Lake Worth Chief of Police Jimmy Womack has seen two deadly crashes in his town in the past year, both under the Azle Avenue overpass on 820.
“Sad to see that and to know the devastation that it caused,” said Womack.
Both drivers died after hitting concrete bridge posts on the edge of the highway.
“When you’re the one who’s going out here and you’re making these death notifications, it’s difficult to do. It’s difficult on the family, obviously, and it’s difficult on the officers,” said Womack.
Another fatal crash occurred at the same location in 2008 after a driver crashed into a post while swerving to avoid pieces of wood in the road.
“Our concern is, what can we do better? What can we do to prevent this kind of travesty from happening in our community?” Womack asked.
After inspecting the underpass, the chief noticed something else. There haven’t been any fatal crashes in the middle of the highway where the Texas Department of Transportation installed a concrete barrier that prevents drivers from directly hitting those bridge posts.
Womack began to wonder whether some sort of guardrail or barrier designed to decrease the force of an impact and keep a car on the road might help.
“I see concrete barriers on this side and I see no fatalities. I see no concrete barriers on the other side and I see fatalities,” said Womack.
Lake Worth police contacted NBC 5 Investigates after seeing earlier reports in May that revealed those other locations where drivers had hit bridge posts out in the open, unprotected, even though state and federal guidelines suggest barriers should have been installed at those locations.
The guidelines say barriers are needed when a bridge post is less than 30 feet from the edge of a lane of travel on a freeway, or less than 16 feet from the edge of the travel lane on a freeway ramp.
But NBC 5 Investigates found at least 10 locations in North Texas where unprotected posts were at closer than the guidelines recommend and yet no guardrails were installed.
One of those locations was an underpass on Spur 482 in Irving where five people died hitting the same posts, unprotected, just five feet from the road.
TxDOT added a barrier after NBC 5 Investigates brought the location to their attention.
Still, a top TxDOT officer still defended the agency’s actions saying the guardrail guidelines are not absolute rules.
Earlier this year, NBC 5 Investigates interviewed TxDOT Director of Operations Randy Hopmann. When asked why some spots like the Spur 482 location where missed, Hopmann responded that he couldn’t “speculate on why guard fence wasn’t installed originally during construction.”
When asked if that was a mistake, Hopmann said, “I can’t say it was a mistake. There’s engineering judgment call on every location.”
Back in Lake Worth, Womack admits he doesn’t have the answers.
“I’m not the engineer, all I am is concerned,” said Womack.
He said he’s not pointing fingers at anyone, he just believes it’s worth asking whether barriers could help save lives on his stretch of road.
“That may be too simple, but it may be right on. I don’t know,” said Womack.
In December, Womack reached out to TxDOT but said so far the agency hasn’t provided any suggestions for improvements.
NBC 5 contacted also TxDOT about the Lake Worth location, but in an email a spokesman responded, “We will not have comment on any such issues related to guard rails due to anticipated litigation."
TxDOT believes the family of a crash victim may sue them over missing rails.
Since TxDOT wouldn't talk, NBC 5 went to Republican State Sen. Don Huffines (Dist. 16). Huffines, who is the vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, pledged to talk with the State Highway Commission and said he wanted TxDOT to conduct a statewide search for any locations where guardrails were missed.
“It's a big state and they've got their budgets to deal with, but they obviously have neglected some of the safety issues they should be focused on,” said Huffines. “With TxDOT, there's nothing more important than the safety of the motoring public and TxDOT should have the rails up.”
In Lake Worth, one set of concrete posts sits just 15 feet from a freeway ramp, suggesting a rail should be installed. Other posts at the underpass sit three feet or more beyond the distance where current guidelines recommend rails.
But no matter what the guidelines mandate, Huffines said where drivers have died it’s worth considering changes and that the agency should use common sense.
On this big road, in a small town, a police chief waits for answers hoping something can help.
“If there's something we can do better as a community, then I think we should at least try it,” said Womack.
NBC 5 Investigates has uncovered more information about how often these crashes happen across the state.
New data obtained from TxDOT show there have been at least 2,100 crashes where a car hit bridge posts, underpasses or overhead signs bridges. It’s not clear how many of those locations had guardrails or not. Again, TxDOT will not tell NBC 5 if the agency has conducted any kind of statewide search for spots that may have been missed.
NBC 5 Investigates requested crash data from TxDOT to identify all reportable Motor Vehicle Traffic Crashes Involving Object Struck of Hit Pier or Support at Underpass, Tunnel or Overhead Sign Bridge since 2010. Per TxDOT data, a reportable motor vehicle traffic crash is defined as: “Any crash involving a motor vehicle in transport that occurs or originates on a traffic way, results in injury to or death of any person, or damage to the property of any one person to the apparent extent of $1,000.”
They provided data collected from Texas Peace Officer's Crash Reports (CR-3) that provided county, year, crash severity, crash time, longitude/latitude, fatalities and injured. NBC 5 Investigates used the information to create an interactive map to see where wrong-way crashes have occurred in North Texas and throughout the state.
*This data was last updated by TxDOT June 26, 2016.
Questions? Please feel free to contact Producer Eva Parks, NBC 5 Investigates at firstname.lastname@example.org.