Is Weld County’s Jump in Traffic Deaths a Side Effect of Colorado’s Shale Oil Boom?

No one can say for sure why the number of traffic deaths in Weld County has nearly doubled in 2012 compared to one year ago. However, the Niobrara oil shale boom and resulting increase in large truck traffic on rural roads not built to handle the loads may be playing a part.

The Colorado State Patrol reports most accidents resulting in serious injury or death in Weld, Larimer and Morgan counties occur on rural roads. Weld County is the center of eastern Colorado’s oil and gas production and is home to about 18,000 wells.

Few people know that traffic accidents — often involving large tanker or gravel trucks — are the top killer of oil rig workers nationwide. Of all rig worker deaths, one third are due to work-related traffic accidents, says the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.

Towns in Larimer, Weld and Morgan counties have suddenly gained residents and the car and truck traffic that goes with them in the past two years. The loads the trucks carry are extremely heavy. The reason: drilling a well down to the Niobrara commonly involves using one million gallons of fluid so the well can undergo hydraulic fracturing, commonly called “fracking.” At some well sites, 18-wheel trucks make hundreds of trips to bring in the fluid. That’s after a steady stream of gravel trucks come through during the building of the drilling site. These trucks create an unprecedented mix of heavy commercial trucks and residential traffic on once comparatively less-travelled roads. The danger is compounded when rig workers find themselves tired driving home after a shift in darkness along an unfamiliar, generally unlit route because the rigs and crews are constantly moving from one location to another.

The problem is not confined to Colorado. In southern Texas, where it’s the Eagle Ford Shale that’s attracted unprecedented exploration activity, just one person was killed in a traffic accident in 2008 before the boom hit Karnes County —12 persons died in motor vehicle crashes in the first six months of 2012 , according to the Houston Chronicle.

Road conditions themselves may be contributing in Colorado, as well. El Paso County has reported rutting and asphalt degradation near well sites to exploration companies. Weld County officials are studying the problem and have also talked to oil companies about infrastructure concerns, including damage to narrow rural bridges.

Exploration of the Niobrara clearly has helped the state’s economic recovery, but what it has meant for traffic safety and what should be done in response is worth consideration.

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