Dangerous turns

On Wichita County’s rural roads, fast driving, skinny lanes and drinking contribute to the majority of fatal accidents

Byline: Brent D. Wistrom, Times Record News


Steve Tubbs sees death, destruction and tears from his vantage point on the brim of the deadliest road in Wichita County.

Cars tumble into his yard. Motorcycles skid to his doorsteps. Children come to grieve.

The misfortune tends to stop at the reddish, steel fence Tubbs installed to keep tumbling vehicles out of his living room.

The battered fence is missing portions of its 2-inch steel pipe where cars lost their grip on the asphalt and flew through. Other sections are dented and scratched.

The piece just outside Tubbs’ living room bows away from the road. A flowery memorial leans against a post. “DAD,” it says in tall, red letters.

Sometimes, the man’s children visit the fence. Tears flow.

The 24-year-old father lost control of his motorcycle on New Year’s Eve while riding around the most dangerous curve in Wichita County with two other motorcyclists.

At least seven other drivers left the road and wrecked against the reddish fence in recent years.

Twenty yards down from where the motorcycle crashed, the fence ends abruptly at the edge of the dirt driveway where a car flew off the road and clipped it.

Farther yet, at the west edge of Tubbs’ yard, a portion of the fence is missing two of its three pipes where a car veered through it one night.

Tubbs remembers.

He was first on the scene and found part of his fence rammed through the car’s wheel well and windshield. It stopped inches away from the driver’s face, he said. The driver survived.

“My fence gets hit three, four times a year – either from the rain… or they come speeding around here too fast,” said Tubbs, who has lived on the wide side of the curve for 20 years.

At least six people died in car wrecks on FM 367 from 1999 to 2003, making it the deadliest road in Wichita County, according to state and federal reports. The county’s busiest roads – U.S. 287 and I-44 – combined for only three fatal accidents in those four years.

Only one of FM 367’s fatal accidents involved drinking. The rest resulted from speeding or misjudgment.

From 1996 to 2000, the Texas Department of Public Safety recorded 128 accidents on FM 367, ranging from property damage wrecks to fatal collisions. Forty-four of those wrecks involved injuries – eight were classified as “incapacitating” injuries.

The road snakes from Loop 11 in Wichita Falls to Iowa Park and then on to State Highway 25, outside of Electra. It’s about 20 miles long.

Half of the accidents on the road are single vehicle wrecks where drivers went off the road and crashed into the ditch, a tree or a fence.

That matches state and national trends. But speed plays a role in 41 percent of Texas’ fatal wrecks compared to 31 percent nationally.

Comparatively, Wichita County has fewer highway fatalities than some counties with similarly sized cities, like Abilene and Waco. It has more fatal accidents than San Angelo.

Like many areas in Texas and throughout the nation, undivided rural highways are the deadliest in Wichita County.

The curve in front of Tubb’s home and business is the worst.

It logged seven accidents between 1996 and 2000 – more than any other place on state or federal roads in Wichita County.

One driver died in 1998. On the last day of 2004, it happened again.
“They need to do something about it,” Tubbs said.
Unwinding _piece by piece

The Texas Department of Transportation plans to widen the curve in front of Tubb’s home in 2006. Another bend near Peterson Road will also be expanded.

Their traffic accident statistics show the curves need changes. The expansions cost an estimated $250,000.

In an area with nearly unchanging terrain, however, a meandering road begs questions about its design.

FM 367, like many farm-to-market roads, started as a dirt trail, connecting point A to point B for the area’s first property owners. Many homeowners on FM 367 say most traffic now is from oil well crews, motorcycles and neighbors.

Although there’s no precise story line for FM 367, TXDOT spokesman Ben Coker said it likely weaves around property lines. The road’s creators also had to steer the path around areas where water gathers.

It wasn’t until 1948 that FM 367 got its first layer of blacktop.

Then in 1978, crews widened some of the road’s sharp curves to 10-foot lanes, allowing two cars to pass with more ease. In 1997, TXDOT crews widened parts of the road nearest to Wichita Falls to 12-foot lanes, making the turns safer yet, Coker said.

In 2001, TXDOT crews also widened a sharp bend at the intersection with Huntington Lane.

LaDonna Wachsmann lives in a cozy home on that curve.

“It’s used to be every Friday and Saturday night just about,” she said. “You’d hear a screech of the tires and a bang.”

“I’ve had to call the ambulance several times,” she said.

But, since the turn grew two-feet wider on each side, she hears fewer screeches, she said.

“I really didn’t think it would make a difference,” she said. “But I guess it did.”
One thing that didn’t change, however, is the flow of motorcycle traffic, she said.
“I call ’em danger machines,” Wachsmann said. “I mean, they haul down this road.”


SPEED ZONE

Bob Lipscomb moved into his home on FM 367 a few years back.

He’s already moving his fence. A skidding motorcycle snapped the barrier late one night while Lipscomb was in his house.

“He must have been going pretty fast,” he said.

As Lipscomb, 86, stands in his driveway telling the story, two red sport bikes – or crotch rockets – leaned into the big curve and accelerated. The sound fades away, then rekindles in the distance as they accelerate again.

“I guess some of them are going 60-70 MPH around here,” Lipscomb said. “And I think it’s a 55.”

Most of FM 367 is a 55 MPH zone. And the road has more than a dozen 45 mph or 35 mph advisories.

While many residents along the road say vehicles tend to speed, the road is not heavily patrolled.

Only about a mile of the road is in Wichita Falls’ jurisdiction. And city police have never written a speeding ticket on the road, according to municipal court records.

FM 367 is also completely outside of Iowa Park and Electra police territories.

Wichita County Sherriff cars don’t have radars to detect speeding.

Assistant Deputy Chief Grady Smith said there’s no easy way to query how many tickets sheriff officers have issued on FM 367. But, he said, you could likely count them all on a hand or two.

“Most of the stuff we do is written in city limits,” he said.

That leaves state troopers.

Nearly 17,600 cars travel on FM 367 for every one speeding ticket issued by a DPS official, according to a Times Record News analysis of state records. On U.S. 287, 8,500 cars pass per speeding citation.

While troopers write tickets on U.S. 287 at about twice the rate they do on FM 367, there are nearly double the accidents.

U.S. 287 logged 254 accidents between 1996 and 2000. FM 367 had 128 in the same time.

“We monitor the locations of accidents,” DPS Public Information Officer Joe

Clement said. “If we see a significant rise in accidents we’ll patrol that area.”
But, with only eight troopers assigned to Wichita County, their enforcement is limited.

At any given time, one to three troopers are patrolling the county, Clement said. Their enforcement has a slight lapse between 3 and 6 a.m. But troopers are always on call.

“It would be nice if I could tell you that we have 10 people on every shift, but that’s not feasible,” he said. “You have to work within budget constraints.

“Day in, day out we do the best we can and cover as much area as we can with the manpower we have.”

Bob Lipscomb sees plenty of law enforcement presence. He said some city and county officers live on the road.

“We’ve got more police enforcement out here than they do in town,” he said.

In fact, he said, one of the officers is helping him rebuild his fence.

Brent D. Wistrom can be reached at (940) 763-7554, 1-800-627-1646 Ext. 554 or by e-mail at wistromb(at)TimesRecordNews.com.