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Permian Basin Truck Accidents Rise, Despite Coronavirus and Falling Oil Prices

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While the global coronavirus pandemic has taken a steep toll on the West Texas energy industry, lower demand and falling oil prices have done nothing to slow the rate of fatal truck and 18-wheeler accidents in the Midland-Odessa region and throughout the Permian Basin.

In fact, deadly crashes are up slightly compared to the same period last year, when the Permian Basin’s oilfields were far busier and crude prices remained high enough to turn a profit.

Permian Basin Boom Ended with Collapsing Oil Prices

During the most recent Permian Basin oil boom, drillers needed thousands of heavy trucks and 18-wheelers to ferry sand, water and other supplies to the oilfields around Midland and Odessa. Because of a severe shortage of seasoned truckers, these companies were routinely offering six-figure wages to lure new drivers to the Permian oilfields, most of whom lacked the experience to safely navigate the area’s rural roads and highways.

With so many inexperienced truckers working consecutive 12-hour shifts to keep the oil flowing 24/7, deadly truck and 18-wheeler crashes increased sharply across the region.

Unfortunately, the emergence of COVID-19 brought the Permian Basin oil boom to an end. Now that millions of people across the globe are being forced to shelter in place, the price of West Texas Intermediate Crude has collapsed entirely and drillers are running out of space to store their oil.

Rig counts in the Permian are declining rapidly and layoffs are the order of the day.

59 Dead in Permian Basin Crashes This Year

It would be logical to assume that the downturn in the oil market has made West Texas roads safer than they’ve been in years. But according to data compiled by the Permian Road Safety Coalition, 59 people died in crashes between the start of this year and the end of March, an increase of 10 compared to the same period last year.

While it’s not clear exactly what might be behind the increase, the Permian Basin’s mounting layoffs and the resulting economic anxiety could well be a contributing factor.

“I really think it’s this concern about your job, concern about the health of your family, there’s just a lot of external factors I think that play into individual psyche,” Scott Scheffler, head of the coalition, recently told Courthouse News Service.

“We’re starting to see more of these kind of mentally distracted incidents, literally where someone runs into the back of another vehicle and can’t explain why they did that,” he continued.

Economic Anxiety May Encourage Recklessness in the Permian

A handful of rigs remain operational in the Permian Basin, and oilfield workers – including truckers – are deemed essential during the pandemic.  But in the current climate, it’s likely those still on the job are feeling increased pressure to prove their worth to their employers.

“If I still got a job, I’ve got to do everything I can to not lose my job,” a spokesperson for TxDOT’s Odessa District told Courthouse News Service. “So I’ve got to do more work because there’s fewer people out here, and I’ve got to hustle more than I’ve ever hustled before.”

Permian Basin trucking was already notorious for enabling a “culture of risk” that encouraged speeding and other reckless behaviors.  With so much economic uncertainty, the region’s few remaining oilfield truck drivers might be willing to take even greater risks on the road, leading to even more fatal accidents in the near future.

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