Crashes common on oil, natural gas thoroughfare
February 28, 2018 10:25 PM
EDDY COUNTY, N.M. -- Oil is the driving force of southeastern New Mexico. Hauling sand, oil, water and natural gas, thousands of trucks line up bumper to bumper along State Highway 285.
Every three days, there's a collision. Nearly every month, there’s a fatality.
"It is hell," said one natural gas truck driver, Rick Chambers.
"It's the highway of death," added Robert Moore, another truck driver.
Highway 285 connects southeast New Mexico to Texas. The thoroughfare pumps fuel and revenue into New Mexico's economy, but Eddy County Sheriff Mark Cage said his office responded to 115 crashes in 2017. Out of those, 57 people got hurt and seven people died.
"It's a two-lane. There is almost no shoulder off to the side," Cage said. "If my folks are out there and they pull you over, they're writing you a ticket. I don't normally advocate that, but if they're going to risk their lives to stop you from doing something out there, you're obviously doing something pretty bad. You're going to get a ticket."
Cage said heavy traffic patrols alone won’t make the road safer.
"I send my folks out to do traffic enforcement," Cage said. "It's sending them into harm's way, literally, because to stop a vehicle out there, it's almost impossible to find a safe place to do it."
New Mexico State Police reports say officers responded to 41 crashes along Highways 128 and 285 in 2016. Crash reports obtained by 4 Investigates reveal that nearly half of the crashes were the trucker's fault. Crash causes include truckers driving too fast, tires blowing out or drivers simply not paying attention.
Commercial truck drivers admit that the oil business has significantly contributed to the sheer volume of truck traffic.
“It’s super busy," truck driver Greg Wood said. "It should be like a four-lane highway."
Because there is no weigh station on Highway 285 between the New Mexico-Texas border and the town of Malaga, many trucks bypass any sort of inspection mandated by law enforcement. Driver sleeping logs, truck weight and maintenance are reviewed at checkpoints.
There is an abandoned checkpoint in Malaga, but NMSP Lt. Elizabeth Armijo said it has been unmanned for nearly 40 years due to a lack of state funding and manpower. Armijo added that trucks are now 12 to 22 feet longer than they were in the 1980s, so even if the facility was renovated it wouldn’t even be big enough to accommodate current commercial traffic.
State Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad, said the road needs to be repaired and expanded.
"The road conditions right now are not acceptable," Brown said. "We don't have shoulders. We don't have passing lanes. We don't have acceleration and deceleration lanes."
Brown has worked with the New Mexico Department of Transportation to study Highway 285 and hopefully secure funding for its expansion. Brown has even proposed toll fees.
As for the abandoned DPS checkpoint, she wants to see it replaced.
"We need to have the money to staff a facility," Brown said.
"We have to protect the citizens and New Mexico State Police are woefully undermanned," Cage said. "They’re trying. They've committed to us."
Updated: February 28, 2018 10:25 PM
Created: February 28, 2018 07:43 PM
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