Death Stalks Permian Basin Roads, as Drilling Boom Shows No Signs of Slowing

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The Permian Basin is becoming more dangerous for drivers by the day, as a non-stop drilling boom continues to bring an unprecedented level of traffic to the region’s roads and highways.

Once-Rural Permian Basin Roads Now Industry Highways

In just three years, the Permian Basin has become the world’s busiest oilfield.

The boom’s economic benefits are evident across west Texas and southeastern New Mexico: Thousands of new workers have flooded the region; jobs are plentiful; and long lines form daily at newly built chain restaurants. But there’s also a dark side, including an uptick in oil spills, increasing air pollution, and traffic-clogged roads.

“We’ve got small-town farm roads that have become highways for industry,” Missi Currier, a Carlsbad native and president of the Roadway Safety Integrated Project, recently told SearchLight New Mexico.

Many Oilfield Truckers are New to Permian Basin

Every day, thousands of semi-trucks travel Permian Basin roads and highways, hauling equipment, drilling sand, and other essentials that keep the oilfields running day and night.

Because qualified truck drivers are scarce, oil companies are increasingly hiring workers from outside of the region, even outside of the country. Many of these newly arrived drivers are inexperienced, and all lack familiarity with the Permian Basin’s narrow, congested, and deteriorating roads.

“Some drivers who have come in from other countries may have experience trucking food on nice federal highways, but driving on federal highways is very different from driving on old farm roads with a lot of potholes,” Currier said.

A Culture of Risk Encourages Speeding, Reckless Driving

To make matters even worse, the pressure to meet delivery deadlines and prevailing pay structures have created a culture of risk that encourages many Permian Basin truckers to speed, drive recklessly, work consecutive shifts without a break, and neglect vehicle maintenance.

“Those getting paid by the load or the mile are trying to make that extra money,” Jeff Walker, a former police officer who teaches truck driver training courses at New Mexico Junior College, told SearchLight. “So, they’re in a hurry and they don’t check things they should on the truck and they get pulled over, or have an accident.”

Given these conditions, it’s no surprise that deadly oilfield truck crashes and other motor vehicle accidents have increased significantly throughout west Texas and southeastern New Mexico.

Permian Basin Traffic Woes Extend Beyond “Death Highway”

Few Permian Basin roads have seen as much carnage as Death Highway.

As the drilling boom ramped up in 2017 and 2018, a total of 80 crashes and 7 deaths occurred along the single, 20-mile stretch of U.S. Route 285. At least 35 of those accidents involved heavy trucks.

The same area of Route 285 saw just 114 accidents and 5 deaths during the entire previous four-year period.

Unfortunately, the Permian Basin’s traffic woe’s now go far beyond Death Highway.

According to Searchlight, State Routes 31 and 128 have become particularly hazardous in New Mexico, where even the smallest rural lanes no longer offer respite from the constant stream of semi-trucks rushing to serve the oilfields.

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