My daily commute may be relatively tension-free -- no Office Space moments with an old man walking by with a walker at a speed faster than me -- but it comes with a high risk. Every day I drive to work, I drive down what most people are starting to refer to as "The Highway of Death."
It may sound a little melodramatic to some, but the statistics don't lie. On February 22, 2008, the Statesman reported that 10 people had died on a two-mile stretch of Highway 71, just west of the Bee Creek Road intersection, since October 2006. Most of these fatalities were multiple vehicle accidents that took place when it was raining or had recently rained. On March 3, 2008, a single vehicle accident occurred, killing yet another person, as reported by KVUE News.
These grim statistics have led to increased public outcry and -- finally -- TxDOT intervention. KVUE reported yesterday that the speed limit on the aptly named "Highway of Death" would be lowered by 5 miles per hour -- going from 60 to 55 mph in some areas and from 65 to 60 mph in other areas (where most of the fatalities occur).
I have started to notice an increased state trooper presence along the highway, with the troopers setting up radar traps all along the two mile danger zone, as well as sheriff vehicles driving back and forth constantly. There are also new, somewhat temporary looking digital signs flashing "SLIPPERY WHEN WET - SLOW." To those of us who drive the road daily, this is like saying "THE SKY IS BLUE - LOOK AT IT."
In the KVUE video report, TxDOT rep Marcus Cooper is seen saying "Our main priority right now is to slow traffic down." While I appreciate the effort, slowing down Hummers and gravel trucks and Beamers from 65 miles to 60 is not going to save lives. Anyone who's taken the State of Texas Driver's Education Course and has watched the crash-test dummy videos knows that.
What is perhaps more unsettling is the new housing development going up literally on the shoulder of the road where there would normally be several wooden crosses marking the deaths that have occurred there. The sprawling subdivision is bringing 1,500 new homes to the area; homes that will be settled in a picturesque valley that the Highway of Death dips into, the road sharply descending, becoming the cause of three Round Rock educators' deaths last June (I know -- I drove by the remnants of that one on my way home from work one rainy evening).
The Muckraker called out Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty on his approval of the subdivision in late August 2007:
Travis County Commissioner and CAMPO board member Gerald Daugherty (above) voted to approve the development of 1,500 homes in the hill country. The kicker is - it's on a stretch of highway (71W) that everyone agrees is an already overburdened and a very dangerous road. This vote proves that Commish Gerald Daugherty cares more about his contributors profits, than the safety of our families.I'm hoping that the new Democratic nominee for Travis County Commissioner, Pct. 3, Karen Huber, will be able to unseat Daugherty in November. Daugherty certainly will have quite a bit to answer to on the topic of the Highway of Death. I've signed up to block walk or to do whatever I can for her campaign.
Last week, as we were coming back from our Friday team lunch, one of my coworkers pointed out a handmade, wooden sign affixed to a fenceline on the north side of Highway 71. The sign depicted a red skull and crossbones with the words "Blood Alley!" underneath. Everyone chuckled in uncomfortable agreement and the driver of the car quietly turned on his right turn signal, moving to the right-hand lane away from the median. Unfortunately, there is no safe lane on my daily drive down Blood Alley.