A couple weeks ago I rolled through a stop sign, coming out of the heavily-Hispanic Southport Drive apartment complex neighborhood, and got pulled over. The stop sign at the intersection of Southport Dr. and Banister Ln. is buried in trees. You can’t see around the corner until you’re fifteen feet in front of the sign. It’s a perfect place for a cop to hang out and wait for some dumb fool to look, not see any cars coming, and blow the stop.
The officer approached the window and I handed her my Texas license and insurance.
“Do you know why I stopped you?”
“You didn’t stop at the stop sign back there.”
“Oh … shoot! I’m sorry! I just live right here.” I pointed to my apartment, which was in sight.
She started asking questions about my out-of-state plates, and I started lying about how long I’d been living in Texas. This process went on for about twenty minutes. I managed to confuse her enough to only write me a ticket for running the stop sign. As a parting line, she assured me that she was acting in my best interest. “There have been a lot of accidents at this intersection, lately. We’re just making sure everyone stays safe.”
“Liar,” I thought. I took my ticket and drove the hundred feet to my apartment parking spot.
I thought about that line the next day and remembered: I’d been logging the City of Austin’s traffic reporting page for the past five months. I could look through all the logged data and see if there were any recorded accidents in the past six months.
I wasn’t surprised at all when I searched and scrolled through the thousands of traffic events that Austin police and Travis County sheriffs had responded to and didn’t find anything about that intersection.
The Austin-Travis County Traffic Report Page is a simple web page where the city outputs current traffic events every five minutes. It gives location, time, and a category to the event. The Austin Police Department is responsible for most of the data on this page, although there are other agencies included. Traffic events are broken down like this:
“Crash Blue Form”: Collisions that do not require a law enforcement response. “Crash Urgent”: Dispatched within 5 minutes. Collisions involving minor injuries and or where minor injuries are suspected. “Traffic Hazard”: Any traffic hazard on major thoroughfares that may cause a collision, injuries, or otherwise cause undue traffic congestion. “Loose Livestock”: Self-explanatory.
The Travis County Sheriff’s Department uses similar terms, but they prefer the word “collision” instead of “crash.” (You can find the Austin-Travis County Traffic Report Page at http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/qact/default.cfm)
So I set up some software (hidden on the austincut.com server) to log this data every five minutes, for the past five months. I gathered thousands of events and I was able to plot it all onto a Google map. I could see where the most collisions were concentrated.
![IH-35 and William Cannon H-E-B. The traffic stretches off into infinity.]
IH-35 and William Cannon H-E-B. The traffic stretches off into infinity.
I-35 and William Cannon
The king of Austin-area collisions was the I-35 and William Cannon intersection/exits. From late May to late September, I recorded over 71 auto collisions. That’s basically one every other day.
If you’ve ever been on the exit or through this intersection, you know what kind of a congested headache it can be. The actual intersection of IH-35 and William Cannon is so overloaded that cars often back up from the stop lights all the way past the exit ramp and onto I-35 itself. This area also has a feature that seems to increase collisions and congestion significantly, and is a theme in these traffic hot-spots: large strips of shopping centers next to high-volumes of traffic. Particularly, there’s an enormous H-E-B at this intersection with a narrow, packed, poorly designed parking lot that leads directly onto the IH-35 service road.
I talked to a panhandling homeless guy who said he hangs out around the intersection a lot. He said, “I see accidents here all the time. Especially on a day like this. I’ve seen people run over, man!” He went on to tell me about how people he knows like to run cross I-35 as he pointed down to the highway and to some sort of an encampment under the William Cannon overpass. He continued: “I mean, right now it’s OK, because the traffic is so bad and everyone is going slow, but some people like to run across when it’s going fast. I’ve probably had eight friends get hit by cars at this intersection.”
As far as the collision data goes, the accidents were fairly evenly distributed between the exits (both north and southbound) and the actual intersection. In the news, this intersection was also home to a couple flaming trucks (one of which was noticed first by a Department of Transportation traffic camera), an eighteen-wheeler gone out of control, a pedestrian killed while crossing I-35 on foot, and a teenager killed by police while breaking into Big Lots.
I-35 and Rundberg
Coming in second, was I-35 and Rundberg. I collected 45 collisions in the five-month period and I guess this spot hasn’t gone unnoticed by Austin police. In June, they started setting up a camera surveillance system on the area. According to one police officer being interviewed by the Community Impact Newspaper, “Statistically, Rundberg [at I-35] has been a problem for years … People go there from all over Austin because they know that’s where they can get drugs.” According to the reporter, crimes logged by police in that area include everything from prostitution to kidnapping. So while the police seemed to be concerned with gang activity, drug peddling, and other more extreme forms of crime, the area still caused a blip on my traffic data radar, meaning it wasn’t without its more mundane counterpart, auto accidents.
![North Lamar and Rundberg: to the left is the bus stop where Kari Williams was hit by an uninsured drives, and a woman crossing the street Texas-style, captured by chance on Google Street View]
North Lamar and Rundberg: to the left is the bus stop where Kari Williams was hit by an uninsured drives, and a woman crossing the street Texas-style, captured by chance on Google Street View
North Lamar and Rundberg
I only collected one less accident (44) at N. Lamar and Rundberg than I did several miles east at the I-35 intersection, but the North Lamar intersection generated a lot more media-documented carnage.
For those who don’t know, the mid-9000s block of North Lamar is a heavily congested area. According to the Austin Police Department's DWI Enforcement Unit, this intersection was number two in alcohol-related collisions between 2008 and 2009. There are also a lot of shops, stores, and bus stops, and crosswalks are inconvenient. In Texas terms, that means a lot of people will be running across two high-speed lanes to the yellow line, waiting for that direction of traffic to clear up, and running across the road to the sidewalk. In fact, a Google Maps “street view” of the area shows a woman with a bag of groceries (I assume) waiting on the double yellow. (http://g.co/maps/k5q7k)
In June, one woman, Kari Williams, was waiting at the bus stop on North Lamar near Rundberg, when a car pulling a right out of the nearby Walgreens parking lot came crashing into the stop. According to KVUE, who interviewed Williams, “[The driver] got out of the car. She kept telling me, ‘I can't go to jail. I can't get arrested. I can't get deported.’” The driver didn’t want to call for help, but Williams’ screams were heard by others who did call for an ambulance.
In a fairly incredible moment of willpower, Williams took off her belt and tied it around her leg, knowing, “if I didn't stop the bleeding, I would die.” She was rushed to the emergency room where doctors were able to save one of her legs. In a typically Texas outcome, the woman who hit Williams didn’t have insurance.
710 East Ben White Blvd
This intersection is the only one that was heavily concentrated at one address. 710 E. Ben White / Payload Pass is the only main road that leads out from the Walmart shopping center. I used to go to this Walmart to buy injection supplies, but the hassle of getting in and out of there wasn’t worth it. If you’re coming from the west, you need to take the Ben White U-turn and try to snake into oncoming high-speed westbound Ben White traffic. If you manage to get into the Walmart parking lot without crashing, getting out is just as hard. There is always a pretty long wait to get out of there, because traffic headed down Ben White rarely stops coming. While the “good citizens” generally line up and wait for the person ten cars in front of them to turn into traffic, a lot of people go through the Chick-fil-A parking lot and start a smaller line of more impatient (and reckless) drivers.
There are so many accidents in this area that the dispatchers have a
specific code they use for it:
“PAYLOAD PASS/BEN WHITE SVRD EB AT IH 35 TRN.”
I actually saw someone get rear-ended near this area. The driver in front of me sped up, following the driver in front of him who was taking a right onto Ben White. But the front driver must have second guessed his timing and slammed on his brakes. The following driver kept going, probably looking to see who was coming and not where he was going, and smashed into the car in front of him.
If you take into account the type of person who frequents Walmart and combine that with the extreme poor planning of that IH-35 and Ben White intersection, it’s really no surprise that this area is a collision magnet.
East Riverside Drive and I-35
This area is a nightmare. You have people on bikes and on foot coming from the enormous apartment complexes down Riverside, high-speed traffic coming from all directions in eight lanes of traffic, extremely odd traffic light sequences, and a constant barrage of people asking for change.
Of the four Riverside lanes that cross I-35, only the left lane turns left onto the Highway. But the amount of people needing to head south outnumbers the number of people willing to wait an extra three green-and-red light cycles in the left lane. So the left two lanes cluster up, as half the people in the third lane try to snake everyone in the left lane. Of those who don’t try to merge at the last second, a good chunk of them take the left turn anyway.
The city’s “new and improved” bike map lists the section of East Riverside near I-35 as “low-comfort.” I’d call it extremely dangerous and would warn you to stay far away. There’s a reason why almost everyone riding a bike around there stays on the sidewalk.
News outlets have been reporting for years how Austin’s traffic problem ranks with cities many times larger, like L.A. and New York, for several years. I’ve heard every side of the argument from, “that’s total shit! I used to live in Los Angeles” to, “down with City Council, they only cater to the rich … look at the 183A, built only to encourage soccer moms and further suburban sprawl, fuckers!” But you can’t deny that the majority of these collision hot-spots are centered around I-35 and in poorly designed or severely vehicle-overpopulated areas.
It’s not a secret that Austin has seen explosive population growth since the 90s, and it’s pretty obvious that more people meant more cars. A lot of people come to Austin expecting to ride public transit from their house on the Eastside to South Austin, but are met with the wall of incompetence and extreme unpredictability that Capital Metro riders experience on a daily basis. As many online commenters have put it: “Austin is a driving city.” (Do a Google search of that quote and you’ll find a lot of complaints from people warning others to not move here.) If you can’t afford a car then you better get a bike, just make sure to avoid East Riverside!
Austin is also home to terrible light coordination, which encourages drivers to run red lights as if it’s their last chance to ever cross the intersection. Throw in tiny, neighborhood-like roads, such as South 1^st^ and Lamar, which are used almost like mini freeways by the massive influx of new Austinites. Toss in a huge percentage of people who are texting so hardcore while driving that one cop told me, “I’ve driven alongside drivers watched them staring down at their phone for minutes until they even saw me.” We don’t have any anti-texting while driving laws, unlike many major American cities. Rick Perry vetoed legislation this year that would have banned texting while driving calling it a “government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults.”
With all of these traffic problems, and a gigantic population of frustrated, heavily-uninsured drivers, I’m not surprised the city doesn’t really know what to do about it. Clearly, throwing billions of dollars down on road improvements isn’t really on the table with the economy in such terrible shape. A light rail solution is such a ridiculous joke that it’s barely even worth mentioning. Same with building toll roads leading out into the middle of nowhere.
Maybe the city could start with trying out a couple new bike lanes, or maybe by trying to give people a shred of a reason to have any faith in our transit system. Who knows. I do know one thing: there are a ton of psychos out there and they’re driving fast. So watch out.
Up-to-date collision map. Click on the points to display the amount of collisions since April 23, 2011.
[IH-35 and William Cannon H-E-B. The traffic stretches off into infinity.]: http://austincut.com/sites/default/files/images/traffic-650-300.png "IH-35 and William Cannon H-E-B. The traffic stretches off into infinity." [North Lamar and Rundberg: to the left is the bus stop where Kari Williams was hit by an uninsured drives, and a woman crossing the street Texas-style, captured by chance on Google Street View]: http://austincut.com/sites/default/files/images/lamar-and-rundberg.png "North Lamar and Rundberg: to the left is the bus stop where Kari Williams was hit by an uninsured drives, and a woman crossing the street Texas-style, captured by chance on Google Street View"