Despite recent criticism painting Toll 49 as dangerous, the head of the agency that administers the road says a wave of serious and fatal wrecks has been determined to have been caused by distracted or inebriated driving, inclement weather conditions or other outside factors.
Chris Miller, the executive director of the Northeast Texas Regional Mobility Authority, said this past week after a regular agency meeting that law enforcement investigators reported those findings about crashes on the toll road in western and southern Smith County.
Even so, Miller has asked the Tyler Police Department and other agencies about hiring off-duty officers, and he wants to add a NETRMA roadside assistance component to promote goodwill with motorists.
“We have a tremendous problem out there, but I think there’s no doubt that there are violators on both sides,” Miller said.
“There are violators that drive too fast obviously for the conditions, and there are violators who drive under the minimum speed limit, and that has created issues told by the law enforcement agencies,” he continued. “Also, I think having that presence out there would be a good shot in the arm for some drivers who may sometimes feel they’re in the wild west out there.”
Since the beginning of the year, the Texas Department of Public Safety has reported three major crashes on Toll 49 that killed a total of five people and injured several more. All were head-on collisions between northbound and southbound traffic on the two-lane road.
Three were sent to the hospital Feb. 4 with injuries after a head-on collision. On March 10, two died when a charter bus carrying students from a school collided head-on with a pickup. Three more died in a fiery crash May 8 when an SUV traveling southbound went into the northbound lane of traffic.
A report from Tyler police indicated that a driver and a passenger in one of the vehicles involved in the March 10 wreck were intoxicated on an illegal substance, Miller said Tuesday, but the report was released about six weeks after the wreck.
The wreck on May 8 happened during a downpour, he said.
“That happens,” Miller said. “We’re told by the Department of Public Safety officials that (driving) speed was not conducive to the conditions of the roadway at that time.”
Miller also mentioned a two-vehicle wreck in November that killed a 9-year-old girl. He said one of the drivers tried to make a U-turn in the middle of Toll 49 at a high speed.
“We really struggle with that idea of do we immediately send out a ‘Well, this wasn’t us,’ “ Miller said adding, “We’re in the business to take criticism, but we’re also in the business to try to get information and facts, so we’ll definitely try to help anybody understand what’s going on.”
A group has surfaced on Facebook called “Terrible Toll 49” in which East Texans are sharing concerns and stories of losing loved ones on the road. More than 500 people have joined the group. Several did not respond to messages sent by a Tyler Morning Telegraph reporter seeking comment.
No one from the Facebook group appeared to speak at the NETRMA board meeting Tuesday at Pinecrest Country Club in Longview. Still, Miller addressed board members about the issue.
“We’ve obviously been taking a lot of hits lately,” he said. “Whenever there’s an accident, I think there’s the flood gates that open up about how unsafe the road is, and I would wager that we are no less safe than the TxDOT roads.”
In 2017, following a separate wave of fatal wrecks and outcry from surviving family members, the agency announced it would widen the road by 4 feet in order to increase space between northbound and southbound lanes. Rumble strips were added in the center and the shoulders. Reflective material also was used.
When the NETRMA performed Toll 49 improvements in 2018, it considered adding medians, an idea “that’s still very much out there,” Miller said. In fact, medians were a possibility mentioned in ideas for Segment 6, the next leg of Toll 49 that would extend the road through eastern Smith County toward Interstate 20 and points east including Longview.
Miller indicated to board members that there are violators who drive too fast for conditions on Toll 49, but there also are violators who drive under the minimum speed limit, which is 65 mph in most places.
“We have not ever had an incident involving a fatality that has had anything to do with the road. The condition was not a pothole that caused it. There wasn’t some debris in the road that caused somebody to swerve out. It has been some driver activity or some kind of interaction with an illegal substance or excessive speeding or distracted driving of some kind,” Miller said.
“I think it’s an important thing for people not to get on our roadway, first of all, if you’re in a distracted situation — looking at your phone or using alcohol or drugs,” he added. “We don’t want you on our road, obviously, and neither does anybody else — the city, the county, the state with the interstates.”
Having a roadside assistance arm with NETRMA emblazoned on the vehicle would help with abandoned vehicles or motorists fixing flat tires or who are stranded for fuel or battery issues on the road — all issues that could become impediments to other drivers, he said.
“The Department of Public Safety consistently urges motorists to practice good driving behaviors during every trip in the car,” Jean Dark, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety, said in a statement. “We encourage drivers, in an effort to avoid crashes, to stay alert and keep their eyes moving to keep track of what is happening at all times.
“Remember, the sooner you spot the hazard, the more time you give yourself to take good evasive action,” Dark said. “Of course, drivers and passengers, regardless of age are required to use safety belts. The department also reminds drivers to know and follow the rules of the road, drive friendly and report aggressive driving to the local authorities.”