• Road rage in Texas: Find accidents in your neighborhood with this interactive map

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    Crash with one or more injuries. Crash with no injuries.

    Braylon Nelson is one of the sweetest kids you’ll ever meet. Like any other 2-year-old boy with an insatiable curiosity, he asks a million questions and loves stories. When I visited him, a 400-page book of fairy tales was on his bed near the medical equipment that helps him breathe and eat.

    Braylon’s father was driving him home from daycare last year when a Ford F-150 crashed into their small Saturn SL2. Witnesses said the truck driver had been speeding during a dispute with another motorist, and police blamed the accident on road rage.

    The Nelsons had nothing to do with the altercation, but Braylon was paralyzed from the neck down.

    No other county in Texas has as many reported road-rage crashes as Bexar County. Police and sheriff’s deputies cited road rage as a contributing factor in 680 crashes from 2007 to 2011.

    That’s according to a public database of every vehicle accident in the state. The information comes from police accident reports, known as CR-3 forms, and are compiled by the Texas Department of Transportation in a massive database called the Crash Records Information System.

    The database tracks hundreds of details about each accident, and anyone can request this information from TxDOT. You can ask for specific locations or types of crashes, or request a copy of the entire database if you’re comfortable using spreadsheets or database managers. To get an idea of what kind of information is available, check out this TxDOT spreadsheet. Or you can read the annual reports of crash statistics published by TxDOT.

    Why does Bexar County have so many road rage crashes? It’s unclear whether we have more angry drivers, or whether San Antonio police are more apt to cite road rage than officers in other jurisdictions.

    Road Rage in Bexar CountyWhen I met with police officials about these statistics, they said they couldn’t comment on the reporting practices in other cities. But about 12 years ago they recognized San Antonio had a growing problem with aggressive drivers, and police started a program in which officers drive in unmarked cars to catch speeders, tailgaters, and other unsafe motorists like the ones accused of paralyzing Braylon.

    I’ve seen some crazy drivers in San Antonio, and when I was working on this story, it seemed like every day I saw someone driving like a maniac.

    If you want to learn more about road rage, you can check out the data for yourself in this interactive map that shows crashes in your neighborhood. You can also download the raw numbers here.

  • Wrong-way crashes on San Antonio highways happen more often than you might think

    Wrong-way crashes in San Antonio flew under the radar

    A few months ago, my boss, Express-News Projects Editor David Sheppard, asked me to see what we could find out about wrong-way crashes on highways. It seemed like there were a lot of these deadly accidents in the news lately, and local officials had recently unveiled a $500,000 pilot project to install flashing wrong-way signs and radar on a 15-mile segment of U.S. 281.

    I wrapped up what I was working on and teamed up with reporter Vianna Davila, who covers transportation. We had to answer two deceptively simple questions. How often do wrong-way crashes happen? And how does Bexar County compare to other counties?

    We turned to a giant database maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation called the Crash Records Information System. It’s derived from accident reports filled out by law enforcement officers, and it tracks hundreds of details about every accident in Texas — including wrong-way crashes.

    But we soon learned there was no quick and easy way to filter the data for the specific wrong-way accidents we were looking for — crashes on major divided highways with exit and entrance ramps.

    The database had a “road type” field, with categories that included interstates, tollways and U.S. and state highways. So far, so good. But some state highways are actually busy roads, such as Bandera Road. The wrong-way crashes on those boulevards are different from the type of accident we were examining. We weren’t writing about distracted drivers who cross a center line into oncoming traffic. We were writing about drivers who head up exit ramps and into oncoming traffic on busy highways and interstates.

    We ended up selecting the five Texas counties with the largest populations, mapped the wrong-way accidents with Google Fusion Tables, and then eyeballed each location to make sure it actually occurred on a major highway. Here’s how the finished product looked for Bexar County:

    It took hours of work but the result was a set of specific crashes we were looking for. And the final numbers were surprising — Bexar County ranked high in wrong-way accidents for the years 2007-2011. It even had more crashes than Dallas County, which is more densely populated and has more traffic. To our knowledge, no one has done this kind of comparison in recent years.

    If you work for a news organization and you’re jumping into data journalism (and you should be), it’s a good idea to share your methodology and findings with the government employees who oversee the data. You don’t want to be surprised by an error they catch after the story is published. And it gives the agency a chance to respond if your findings cast the agency in a harsh light.

    It was certainly surprising to learn Bexar County ranked so high. The other surprise was how long the deadly problem flew under the radar. Despite several high-profile, deadly wrong-way crashes, local officials didn’t start talking about ways to prevent them until the summer of 2010.

    To learn more, check out our two-part series about wrong-way crashes. And check back here when we see how the pilot program is working to stop wrong-way drivers.

  • Mechanical problems with your plane? Check its safety record online

    Guess where we stayed last week. Here’s a hint:

    South Padre Island Beach

    This, my friends, is South Padre Island, where Jen surfed and baby Pete got to marvel at the ocean for the first time.

    But when it was time to go and we tried to catch our Southwest Airlines flight out of Harlingen, a “mechanical issue” delayed our plane before it even arrived at the airport. Once it landed, all the passengers lined up to board. But then we were told the mechanical issue had to be fixed again. The hours dragged by as we entertained Pete and hoped he stayed in a good mood.

    When you’re stuck at the airport, it’s a good idea to channel your inner Louis C.K. and remember that long-distance trips used to take weeks or months, not hours. At the same time, it does get annoying when you realize you could probably drive to your destination faster than the time you spent waiting at the airport. And you also wonder exactly how safe your plane is if it’s grounded for a nagging “mechanical issue.”

    I asked one of the Southwest attendants what the nature of the mechanical issue was, and he told me it was a hydraulic leak. The mechanic on call was about 30 miles away in Brownsville, and he didn’t even arrive to start fixing the leak until 4:20 p.m., about two hours after our flight was supposed to depart. He drove up in an SUV, talked on his cell phone for about 10 minutes, and started taking apart the left engine:

    Southwest Airlines flight mechanic

    The chances of getting hurt in a plane crash are very, very low. But if you’ve got nothing to do while a lone mechanic is trying to figure out what’s wrong with the plane that’s about to hurtle you and your family through the sky, there’s a way to pass the time and check the plane’s safety record.

    Look for the “N” number near the tail. Here’s a photo of the number on our plane:

    n-number on an airplane

    With that number, you can visit this website maintained by the National Transportation Safety Board and check a database of reports documenting aviation accidents and incidents. You can search by all kinds of parameters — including the N-number of a particular aircraft.

    You never know what you’re going to find when you do these searches. Nearly 10 years ago, an engine on a Continental Airlines jet carrying six Corpus Christi officials malfunctioned and the flight had to make an emergency landing. No one was hurt. I checked the N-number and found the same plane had a similar problem nearly a year earlier. Here’s the top of the Dec. 8, 2000 story I wrote:

    A Continental Airlines jet that made an emergency landing after an engine failed Wednesday experienced a similar incident last year in Florida, government records show. No one was injured at the Corpus Christi International Airport when a Boeing MD-80 carrying 65 passengers – including six city officials – made an abrupt emergency landing shortly after one of its engines lost power.

    City Council members described hearing loud popping noises from the right side of the aircraft. Jim Nelson, chief of public safety at the airport, said the plane was able to land with its remaining engine.

    “We could tell something was wrong,” City Council member Melody Cooper said. “It was really scary. All they told us was they couldn’t fire (the engine) up to full power. I guess we didn’t know enough to scream.”

    On March 16, 1999, the same passenger jet had taken off from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida when a “loud bang” was heard during the first few minutes of flight.

    The plane’s left engine failed, according to a Federal Aviation Administration incident report, and the pilot circled back for an emergency landing. None of the five crew members and 141 passengers was injured. …

    The accident database is an amazing resource. You can search the narrative field of all the incident reports. So you could search for the words “bird” or “birds” if you’re curious how often they cause problems for aircraft. That became an important issue after a flock of birds struck a US Airways flight and forced it to land in the Hudson River.

    The N-number can tell you the model of a plane, who owns it, and its age — our plane, not surprisingly, was a Boeing 737, the workhorse of Southwest Airlines. You can also look up Service Difficulty Reports, which document what are usually minor problems. also offers access to the same government databases.

    In our case, about the craziest thing I could find for our plane was a service difficulty report in 1998 that said the plane had to make an unscheduled landing because of a leaky window. In the accident database, there was no mention of our 737’s N-number, which made me feel better when we finally boarded the flight and made our way home.

  • WOAI fought long battle to obtain TxDOT’s auto-accident data

    Wrong way signWOAI featured a unique, data-driven story last week about the high number of accidents caused by inattentive drivers talking on their cell phones. Journalists at the television station analyzed an accident database kept by the Texas Department of Transportation that tracks contributing factors for all vehicle crashes in Texas.

    To get the story, WOAI had to fight a lengthy open-records battle with TxDOT. During their legal dispute, TxDOT took the unusual step of asking a state senator to write a bill that, in its original form, would have kept the entire database private.

    The dispute between WOAI and TxDOT is a telling example of how difficult it can be to get important information out to the public. In some cases, it’s a long, expensive slog — it took nearly two years for WOAI to get its hands on the data.

  • How to look up incident reports about plane crashes


    Photo courtesy of eyewitness Janis Krums from TwitPic

    If you want to find official reports about plane crashes and other accidents, the National Transportation Safety Board has a searchable database of incident reports on its Web site.

    The nice thing about this site is you can do a keyword search of the narratives in the incident reports. The US Airways crash landing in New York appeared to be caused by birds striking the aircraft. If you’re curious about how often birds hit planes and how serious these incidents are, you can do a search for “bird” or “birds” and read dozens of reports that pop up.

    Most reports describe the damage caused by birds as minor but there were some bird-strikes that caused substantial damage. Here’s a narrative of a bird-strike incident that occurred in Jasper, Texas last year:


    You can look up incidents by aircraft type, airline, state, and other descriptions.