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In the Permian Basin, An Increase In Traffic Accidents Is Taking A Toll On EMTs

For a long time, 911 calls for car wrecks and traumatic accidents in Glasscock County were few and far between. But the calls have now doubled. (Mitch Borden/Marfa Public Radio)

By Mitch Borden

Driving in the Permian Basin can be dangerous. Roads are packed, huge commercial trucks barrel down the highways, drivers can be careless. The rate of fatal car crashes in the region is rising steeply.

This increase can be difficult and personal for first responders who see these wrecks and take care of the injured.

Carol Jost opens the door to the Volunteer EMS garage in Garden City and steps into the cool building. She quickly points out two ambulances. “They’re always ready to go whenever we have a call.”

Jost is the Emergency Services Administrator for Glasscock County and manages its 18 volunteer EMTs. It’s clear from the layer of dirt on the ambulances’ back doors that they’ve been busy driving along dusty roads. On one, a hand-drawn message has been left on a window: “Wash me”, which makes Jost chuckle.

Glasscock County is about a half-hour drive from Midland. Not many people live there, but each day the population swells with transient workers. And because of fracking operations, commercial traffic has been non-stop. Jost says this is causing her team to respond to a lot of car crashes.

“These aren’t fender benders, these are violent violent crashes," Jost says. "I mean it looks like you’ve stomped on a tin can.”

For a long time, 911 calls for car wrecks and traumatic accidents were few and far between in Glasscock County. Volunteer EMTs had an easier time balancing their personal life with responding to emergencies. But the calls have more than doubled. You can see the evidence broken tail lights, pieces of fiberglass and plastic gloves left by EMTs strewn all over the side of the roads in certain places.

A lot of the accidents Jost and her team respond to happen in one place  the intersection of Highways 137 and 158. Thirty percent of all Glasscock County accidents happen here. The speed limit is high, it’s easy to miss signs warning drivers to slow down, and these days, the roads are often backed up. It’s a dangerous mix that happens all over the Permian Basin.

“I was coming home from work and I was going about 75. I had cruise control going, and the truck in front of me just hits the brakes.”

Christian Olivares lives in Midland and described a close call he had just last month.

"All the traffic was backed up," he recalls. "I hit my brakes and my car skidded and was about two inches away from that truck. And the truck behind was literally a hair away from me.”

Olivares caught a break that night. But he wasn’t so lucky a few weeks before when a driver rammed into him at a stop sign and totaled his car.

Crashes like these have jumped at an alarming rate, says James Beauchamp. He’s the president of the Midland-Odessa Transportation Alliance, a group that works to improve infrastructure in the Permian Basin. They found that in 2017, there were almost 9,800 crashes, which resulted in 173 deaths. That’s about a 63 percent increase in the number of people who died in 2016.

Beaucahmp says this increase can be traced back to the increase in oil production in the region. According to him, “A lot of what is driving that overwhelming number of crashes and fatalities is the commercial vehicle aspect of it, and that goes directly back in the increased activity you’re seeing.”

Carol Jost, the Glasscock County emergency services administrator, admits the costs of these wrecks are starting to pile up. The EMS department has to buy more medical supplies. The ambulances are burning more gas, they need more maintenance, and maybe the biggest stress of all she says there’s “the strain on the volunteers. They’re getting tired.”

For now, Jost is knocking on wood that things don’t get worse.

Mitch Borden is Permian Basin Reporter & Producer at Marfa Public Radio.