A three month long FOX 7 investigation uncovered a dramatic rise in crash fatalities on State Highways. FOX 7 also uncovered a sharp drop in traffic tickets. Some officials are questioning whether the two are related to the DPS Trooper deployment to the Texas/Mexico border.
Over a three week period from mid-July to early August there were 6 fatalities on highways in Williamson County. "It's heartbreaking," says Williamson County Justice of the Peace Precinct 3, Bill Gravell.
"Every time you go to a traffic accident and I have to call or go see a mama that lost her baby, I cry with them," says Justice of the Peace Judy Hobbs. She also serves in Williamson County, representing Precinct 4. "In my mind, I have a blackboard and I try very hard to erase the blackboard, and just use the facts because otherwise you live with those images," she says.
Judy Hobbs has been a J.P. since 1982, Bill Gravell assumed his position in 2013. They are 2 of 4 J.P.'s in the county who certify deaths.
"The first thing that goes through my head is what tragedy is a family going to walk through tonight," says Gravell. But it's tragedy, that often could have been avoided, as alcohol or speed were found to be factors in some of those recent crashes."
"People have to slow down, everybody has to be responsible," says Hobbs.
The majority of their fatality calls these days are on highways that the Texas Department of Public Safety is responsible for patrolling. "I can tell you that there is less coverage because they're not here, they have to cover the border and they are deployed," says Hobbs, adding, "I don't know if it's a week or two weeks."
Both she and Gravell believe that's why there's been a nearly fifty percent drop in speeding tickets in their area over the past two years, from almost nineteen thousand to fewer than nine thousand. "The few traffic tickets we are seeing now are no longer the traffic tickets for going 60 miles an hour in a 50, or a 75 in a 60 or 80 in a 75. It's not unusual now to see one or two tickets a day that top 110 miles an hour," says Gravell.
Hobbs says many of those tickets don't have a hearing for months, "If the trooper has deployed down to the border then the prosecutor doesn't have their primary witness so they have to ask for a continuance until the trooper comes back, then we have to wait until we can fit it into our slot."
And tickets are down around the entire state, by the thousands in many cases except around the border in Starr County. Between January-May 2013 they had added 2333. From January to May 2015, they had already added 4541. With an almost 100 percent increase, the number could be on track to reaching 200 percent by the end of the year.
Gravell believes even though there are Troopers protecting the border, the deployment is leaving Central Texas Highways vulnerable, "I think our troopers are overworked, they're spending more time out of town that they are in town, I think it's harmful for them personally and I think it's playing out here in central Texas."
FOX 7 exclusively obtained and internal DPS Highway Safety report. In it, it shows there have been 2726 crashes on DPS patrolled highways in Central Texas over the past year, with a 152 deaths. That is a 71 percent increase from two years ago. On urban roads in Central Texas, there have been 26,342 crashes over the past year, with 130 deaths.
"It's a pretty simple cause and effect, when the troopers are not on the road people don't obey the laws, when they're not obeying the laws people die," says Gravell.
But according to census data, Williamson County is seeing a population explosion. More than fifteen thousand people have moved to the area over the past year.
But Gravell says he believes the two are not related, "More people are dying on a daily basis in Central Texas than we've ever seen before, and the increase is absolutely not proportional to the population increase."
FOX 7 discovered an internal email from another state agency. It's about the DPS and it's Director. It came through an Open Records request. In it, a Department of Family and Protective Services employee says to a colleague, "and as Colonel McCraw has previously testified several parts of Texas are already having less DPS patrol coverage right now because their priority is border security."
"They go because that's what they're asked to do, but their hearts are back home with their family and what they're assigned to do here," says Hobbs.
During FOX 7's three month long investigation, we drove hundreds of miles across Central Texas, North and South and rarely saw a single DPS Trooper. Gravell explains why he thinks there are fewer on the road, "The DPS Troopers that once patrolled our Central Texas roads and highways are no longer here. It's a skeletal crew of what we had when i started as a Judge some two and a half years ago."
But Central Texas isn't the only area seeing a dramatic rise crash deaths. According to 3 internal DPS Highway reports, state highway fatalities are up across Texas, with few exceptions. Like the Border Region (3B), where they've actually decreased, by almost 34 percent in two years.
"My question is what costs are we willing to pay? Is 85 not enough? Do we need 100 people to die on our roads? Do we need 200? do we need 500? When are we going to decide to bring our troopers back home to fulfill their mission?"
FOX 7 asked the Department of Safety for an interview. They declined our request, but did send us a statement regarding our investigation. The full statement reads:
"DPS was specifically directed by state leaders to begin the border surge in June 2014 to combat drug and human smuggling along the border. Subsequently, DPS informed state leaders that the rotation of troopers from all across the state to the area of operation on the border was creating patrol gaps in other areas of the state. The Texas Legislature and leadership responded by authorizing 250 additional trooper positions to be permanently stationed in the border area by August 2017.
It is important to note that all area law enforcement agencies play a role in reducing crashes in a given area, as does driver behavior. History has shown that most wrecks are preventable, so it is critical that all drivers pay close attention while driving and adhere to traffic laws at all times.
"There is no evidence to suggest that border rotations played a role in the crashes you outlined."
But State highways aren't the only roads that are vulnerable. On Thursday night, in part two of FOX 7's exclusive investigation, find out about the road drivers now share with drug runners - who are using it freely because they know it's likely they won't get caught.