PHARR, Texas (ValleyCentral) — Texas is almost a month away from recording a grim 22-year streak in which at least one person has died every day on the state’s roadways.

As deaths are on the rise in the Rio Grande Valley, drivers here and across Texas need to “wake up” to their responsibilities to drive safely, a Rio Grande Valley law enforcement agent implored Wednesday during an #EndTheStreakTx press conference in Pharr.

“I speak on behalf of DPS across the state, and we continue to respond across the state to fatalities,” said Sgt. Maria Montalvo, public information officer with the Texas Department of Public Safety. “Texas, wake up! Again, I must say, Texas, wake up! We are killing each other, we are hurting each other on Texas roadways.”

The last time Texas recorded a single day without a death on its roadways was Nov. 7, 2000.

“There have been too many fatalities,” said Pete Alvarez, the district engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation’s Pharr District in the Rio Grande Valley. “One fatality is one too many.”

‘Time has not healed’

For Alvarez, one day at work remains unforgettable because of a single death, even though decades have passed. He recalls he was doing a field inspection with other engineers parked on the side of a road July 10, 1985. Among those workers was Pedro “Pedrito” Esparza.

“A distracted driver driving an 18-wheeler veered off the road, hit the van, [and] the van went airborne. Four people were in the van,” Alvarez said. “One of them was ejected, Pedrito, he passed away.”

“A distracted driver driving an 18-wheeler veered off the road, hit the van, [and] the van went airborne. Four people were in the van. One of them was ejected, Pedrito, he passed away.”

Pete Alvarez, district engineer at TxDOT’s Pharr District

The other three were severely injured, Alvarez told ValleyCentral.

“Time has not healed. It’s been rough,” Alvarez said. “At 10:30 in the morning, I say a little prayer for those that were affected by this tragedy.”

This is a photo of Pete Alvarez, TxDOT engineer
Pete Alvarez, district engineer for the Pharr District of the Texas Department of Transportation, speaks to media Wednesday in Pharr. (Ryan Henry/ValleyCentral)

Deadly Trends in the Valley

Alvarez recently presented alarming trends about the Valley before a Texas House committee on transportation. On Wednesday, he shared data from that presentation with ValleyCentral.

State fatalities reached a 40-year peak in 2021, when 4,485 people died on Texas roads, including 132 deaths in TxDOT’s Pharr District. That figure was higher than any other year except 1981, when Texas tallied 4,701 deaths.

“Here on the border, we have seen some trends too,” Alvarez said. “Unfortunately, we are trending up as a whole along the Texas-Mexico border.”

In TxDOT’s Pharr District, deaths were briefly in decline. Deaths dropped from 106 in 2018 to 75 in 2019. In 2020, during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic when many businesses closed and schools turned to remote learning, local deaths totaled 84.

“We thought the numbers should go down, and unfortunately we are trending in the wrong direction,” Alvarez said.

Local deaths increased to 132 in 2021, a 57% increase over 2020.

This year to date, 98 people have died as the result of 87 fatal crashes in TxDOT’s Pharr District, TxDOT Public Information Officer Ray Padraza told ValleyCentral on Wednesday.

Statewide in 2020, deaths reached record-highs as the fatalities reached 3,896–making it Texas’ 8th deadliest year for traffic deaths. Excluding 2021 and 2020, all the other years in the top 8 happened in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“You think about those times, [you think] fast cars, muscle cars, and what have you,” Alvarez said.

What are the common causes and factors?

The causes of deaths in the Rio Grande Valley include driver distractions, speeding drivers, motorists under the influences of alcohol or drugs, and unbuckled drivers or unrestrained passengers, officials said.

“When all said and done, it’s about taking responsibility, making sure that that people do the right thing, that people slow down, focus on the task at hand, which is driving, buckle up and take this personal responsibility,” Alvarez said. “We got to own it. We got to make sure that we do the right thing.”

Rarely are road conditions such as work zones a contributing factor to a death, Padraza said. There has been a single death in a work zone in the Pharr district this year.

“[In work zones] the most common collisions we are seeing are rear-end collisions,” Padraza said, explaining the work-zone crashes in the Valley have typically resulted in damage to vehicles rather than in deaths or serious injuries. “We have people who are tailgating, not following at a safe distance. We are also seeing people, when lanes are reduced or changing, making unsafe lane changes.”

From 2018 to 2021, the Pharr District of TxDOT reported the following trends:

  • 25% decrease in work-zone deaths;
  • 83% increase in speeding deaths;
  • 13% increase in commercial motor vehicle-involved deaths;
  • 63% increase in deaths due to driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs;
  • 68% increase in deaths linked to alcohol alone, and not other drugs;
  • 72% increase in pedestrian deaths;
  • 200% increase in bicycle-related deaths;
  • 55% increase in deaths related to unrestrained passengers or drivers;
  • 150% increase in motorcycle-related deaths.

A passionate plea to drivers

“Pedrito should be here today,” Montalvo said. “But due to a reckless individual, he’s not here. Whether the person was intoxicated, whether the person was distracted, whatever the case it was, Pedrito should be here.”

Driving to work Wednesday morning, Montalvo heard the DPS communications dispatch “several troopers across the Valley to different crashes, some with injuries, some without injuries,” she said.

“It is your responsibility as a motorist to practice defensive driving,” Montalvo said. “Crashes and fatal crashes are preventable, but we are facing them daily because of a lack of responsibiltiy as a driver.

“How much more can we say this to you? How many more times should we come in front of you and ask you, beg you to buckle up, not to speed, not to drink and drive?”

This is a photo of a DPS trooper Maria Montalvo
Department of Public Safety’s public information officer, Sgt. Maria Montalvo talks with reporters Wednesday in Pharr. (Ryan Henry/ValleyCentral)