November 7, 2000, was the last day that no one died on Texas roads. Since then, there has been at least one fatal crash or traffic fatality somewhere in the state. Every day since. The state is 791 weeks into this sad streak.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise. Texas has more than 675,000 miles of road, far more than any other state (California comes in second with under 400,000). Some 5 million people live in just three Texas cities (Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas), and these and other Texas towns are the fastest growing parts of the country. Texas speed limits are some of the highest in the country. Texans drive more miles than anybody but Californians.
Texas simply has more people in more cars on more roads than most any other state. Exposure to the risk of death is just bigger in Texas.
Late last year, Texas launched #EndTheStreakTX, an aggressive campaign to curb the leading cause of Texas traffic fatalities, which is driving under the influence. Elsewhere, however, buried in the data section of the Texas Department of Transportation website, there’s a graphical tool that might be even more effective at illustrating the high human cost of auto dependency in Texas.
Texas DOT maintains monthly calendars showcasing how many people died in traffic on every day of the year. The numbers are listed in red: The top figure indicates the number of crashes in which a person died (fatal crashes), while the bottom figure shows the number of total deaths (fatalities). The calendar makes for a grim sight.
The calendar format is simultaneously clinical and powerful. It reveals what you’d expect: More traffic deaths happen on Saturdays and Sundays (likely after Friday and Saturday nights). Traffic fatalities cluster around certain holidays associated with alcohol consumption: New Year’s Eve, Halloween, and the Fourth of July.
There’s a limit to what a calendar can tell you. If there’s a pattern in the rate of traffic deaths over the seasons, for example, I can’t see one. And maybe there is a pattern—more traffic fatalities in summer than in fall or some such—but that’s not what the calendar is supposed to show. A chart is more useful in explaining that there were 286 traffic deaths in January 2014, or 3,534 deaths over the course of the year. A calendar shows that someone died on January 1, January 2, January 3, January 4, and so on.
It’s the drumming monotony of death that is so alarming, the small integers, day after day, month after month, year after year. There is an almost cruel, taunting footnote on these traffic-death calendars: a red star that would be used to indicate a deathless day. For as long as the state has been producing these visuals, Texas hasn’t had one.
Stretch the timeline back: I wonder how many deathless days Texas has enjoyed before November 7, 2000? Not many, I bet. Not nearly enough.