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Crash Barrels Make A Difference Saving Lives On The Highway

Ryan Loyd

With distracted and drunk driving plaguing San Antonio and Bexar County, officials are taking drastic measures to help reduce injury and death from highway accidents.

The Texas Department of Transportation is helping save lives with vehicle impact attenuators, or crash barrels, which look like sand-filled trash cans and are located in spots where there is an exit or where the highway divides into an upper and lower level.

The attenuators are meant to soften the blow if a driver is heading toward what would otherwise be a solid concrete wall.

"It does help to support that vehicle, it's sort of a cushion," said TxDOT’s Laura Lopez.

Lopez said the attenuators are maintained at the cost of the taxpayer. Sometimes after a weekend, they are cracked, broken wide open, or in other disrepair.

Lopez said last year 557 barrels were replaced at a cost of $230 to $250 each, which totals more than $130,000.

"The data we have, the research that has been done, shows they are very life-saving," she said.

In 2012, San Antonio saw 31,382 total crashes and 114 of those resulted in death.

According to data provided by TxDOT from an open records request, accidents involving the attenuator devices totaled 60 last year -- only 0.2 percent of all crashes -- and none were fatal.

There were 832 crashes where drivers hit concrete traffic barriers, which resulted in three deaths, and 662 crashes where drivers hit the guardrail, which resulted in seven deaths.

Police Chief William McManus said the attenuators are working, no matter what causes the crashes.

"It's far better if you're going to slam into something," he said. "It's better to slam into several barrels full of sand rather than a concrete barrier."

While these features are helping drivers stay safer, the city council felt changes in the laws would also make safety a priority. In 2010, the council banned texting while driving.

McManus said that with a record number of drivers being arrested for drinking and driving, his department began taking a zero-tolerance policy on the problem. One way is through no-refusal blood draws.

"So if you're pulled over [and] suspected of drinking and driving, officers want to give you a breathalyzer, [and] you refuse, you refuse field sobriety tests, [then] a person's taken downtown [and a] warrant is obtained for their blood," said McManus. "You're walked down the hallway and blood is taken from you based on the warrant."

The data provided show that nearly one quarter of the crashes where drivers hit the attenuators involved alcohol.

Ryan Loyd was Texas Public Radio's city beat and political reporter. He left the organization in December, 2014.