By Travis Bubenik, Courthouse News Service
Even before the hellish mix of a global pandemic and collapsing oil prices swept into the West Texas oil towns of Midland and Odessa, the boom times here had started to fade.
In December, the number of drilling rigs out searching for oil and gas in the region had dropped by more than 80 since the start of last year. Executives reported cuts to jobs and work hours even as oil prices held steady at levels where companies could at least still turn a profit.
That was before the real hurt started.
In March, oil prices plummeted to lows not seen since the early 2000s, prompting energy companies to slash budgets and lay off thousands of workers.
In a region that’s infamous for a correlation between increases in oil production and deadly crashes on highways, it would be reasonable to expect those crash numbers to fall when the economy sputters during times like these.
But here in the nation’s largest oilfield, one industry-backed group has instead noticed a strange and concerning trend: deadly crash numbers have ticked up this year compared to the same time last year, when the oil patch was much more bustling.
Now, there’s a growing concern that the combined anxieties of a depressed local economy and the arrival of coronavirus cases in the region could lead to “mentally distracted” drivers making the highways even more dangerous.
“I really think it’s this concern about your job, concern about the health of your family, there’s just a lot of external factors I think that play into individual psyche,” Scott Scheffler, head of the Permian Road Safety Coalition, said in an interview.