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Rusk County roads 6 times deadlier than U.S. average

By Reese Gordon rgordon@news-journal.com
July 14, 2013 at 10 p.m.

A lonely memorial on Texas 79 outside Henderson serves as a reminder that the first half of 2013 has been deadly on Rusk County roads.

Seventeen people have died in wrecks there since January 1 - almost six times the national average.

So alarming are the numbers that county officials will conduct a summit Thursday, convening local and state officials to determine why it's happening and what can be done about it.

County Judge Joel Hale said the meeting is unprecedented in his two and a half years in office.

"The purpose of the summit is to identify what has had an impact in causing these accidents," Hale said. "I think it is going to take time and education to reduce these accidents. People need to take responsibility and realize that you've got to pay attention when you're driving."

The Texas Department of Public Safety reports the national average for traffic deaths is five per 100,000 people per year.

Rusk County Sheriff's Sgt. David Roberts said 17 traffic fatalities the first half of this year, in a county with a population of 60,000, is alarming.

May was a particularly tragic month. Sandra Jones, 63, and Shari Standard, 62, were killed May 1 in a three-vehicle crash just northeast of Henderson on Texas 43.

Six days later, three Stephen F. Austin State University freshmen were killed in wreck near Mount Enterprise.

Hale said several different groups would attend the summit, including members of the Texas Department of Transportation, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Rusk County law enforcement , Department of Public Safety and several school districts.

Jason Taylor, whose father died in a 2007 wreck on Texas 79 south of Henderson, suggested enhanced technology on cell phones as a reason for more road fatalities everywhere.

"Technology is a good thing, but something is wrong when you can't disconnect from Facebook or MySpace while you're driving," said Taylor, who is pastor of Bar None Cowboy Church in Tatum.

"We as humans are hooked on media. Nobody thinks anything bad is going to happen to them, but it is happening to people."

DPS spokeswoman trooper Jean Dark said there were many variables to consider when analyzing traffic fatalities.

"You're not going to be able to look at a fatal accident and say it was one thing that caused it," Dark said. "How many of them are dealing with local people versus non-locals? Was there alcohol involved? Changes in speed limit and road condition are also factors."

Dark said physics determine whether an accident on the road is deadly, highlighting the amount of energy transferred from one object to another.

The landscape of East Texas adds another element of danger, she said; illustrated by accidents like the one Feb. 5, 2012 when three men died after the car they were in hit a tree on Texas 42.

According to the most recent crash statistics released by the Texas Department of Transportation, there were 751 total crashes in Rusk County in 2011. Of those, 12 were fatalities.

Hale, a long-time friend of Jones and Standard, said the county can't sit back and not do anything about its growing number of traffic fatalities.

"When it happens in other places, you really don't think that much about it," he said. "But when it happens in your community to people you know, it really makes you sad and you know the impact it's having on those peoples' families. You just want to try and do something about it."



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