After 20 years, a fearsome monster called the Rattler is closing down at Six Flags Fiesta Texas. It’s a good time to reflect on the park’s flagship roller coaster — and how it suffered from excessive speeds when it opened in 1992.
These internal memos and letters were uncovered in lawsuits filed against Fiesta Texas by riders who complained of head and neck injuries after riding the Rattler during the early 1990s. They show how the ride’s manufacturers were struggling to control the Rattler’s high speeds, even after opening day.
Meanwhile, the public knew little about the problems — and was falsely told the ride was tamer than it actually was.
Years later, the Express-News wrote a series of stories about amusement ride safety and published the main material in the documents. Here are three key records (click on the bottom-left corner of each record for a full-screen view):
A day after its grand opening on March 14, 1992, Fiesta Texas shut down the Rattler because of “excessive speeds.” Roller Coaster manufacturer Mike Black told Fiesta Texas this was a wise move and discussed ways to control the ride. (more…)
Full map 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.
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.
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.
When 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.
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.
But which stations rack up the most complaints, flunk the most inspections and cost consumers the most money?
The answers to those questions lurk within inspection data collected by state employees. The information is public. But like many government agencies, Weights and Measures hasn’t been analyzing its own data to look for trends that could help consumers make informed decisions.
So Express-News Data Editor Joe Yerardi downloaded a publicly available copy of the inspection data and took a look at it for himself.
The result was an interesting Sunday story that told readers things that state officials probably should have known themselves.
Joe learned that one out of five stations in San Antonio had at least one pump that failed inspections. The pumps that are more likely to shortchange customers are owned by one of the biggest players in town: Valero Energy Corp.
Joe mapped the locations of the stations and their inspection results, so anyone can check out the track record of their neighborhood gas station.
Joe told me it took nearly four weeks to work on the story. One of the difficulties he faced was sharing what he learned with state officials, who hadn’t analyzed their own database of inspection reports.
“It’s not their job,” Joe said, describing the bureaucratic mentality of some government workers. “It’s not what they’re paid to do.”
Not every government agency is like that, but it’s not an uncommon problem. When I found a San Antonio police database that documented every vehicle pursuit involving officers, I was a bit surprised to learn that SAPD had never analyzed the information, even though it shed light on an important public policy issue.
These agencies probably paid some poor data-entry monkey to go through each paper report and type the details into a spreadsheet or database. Why not go the extra step and analyze that information?
Joe described these kinds of stories as “low-hanging fruit” for journalists, who can step in and analyze databases that agencies aren’t scrutinizing.
“If they would go above and beyond their actual jobs, there’d be less of a need for reporters,” he said.
The historic Wesley Peacock House near Woodlawn Lake
With all the talk about print being dead, you’d think no one actually picks up newspapers anymore to read the archaic things.
Tell that to Elaine Austin Palmer.
Palmer curates the Wesley Peacock House, a historic home built in 1890 near Woodlawn Lake that served as the headquarters of a military academy.
I wrote a brief about the house for the Express-News’ weekly Cityscapes feature. It ran with a photo of the house on the bottom corner of page 2B of the Metro Section — about as hard to find as you can get.
Yet after the little feature was published, the calls started pouring in at the Peacock House.
Palmer emailed me a few days ago and wrote:
For our corner of the paper in the Metro Section, the Peacock House has received over 50 calls, and some still coming in — with the comments ‘How nice to know it’s still in use, I attended the academy, or I remember coming to the House way back when for a tea, etc.!
It’s good to remember the decline of print is primarily an advertising problem, not a readership problem. People still read the newspaper — even itty bitty news briefs.
I stumbled across this story by using Google’s advanced search options. Google lets you search specific websites for specific files and specific terms. So a way to find little-known databases and interesting stories is to search a government website for spreadsheets, pdf’s, and other type of documents.
For example, let’s say you want to focus on the city of San Antonio. In Google’s search box, you’d type site:sanantonio.gov, to limit the results to pages from the city’s website. Then use “filetype” to focus on specific types of files. The term filetype:xls searches for spreadsheets. Filetype:doc searches for Microsoft Word documents. Filetype:pdf searches for … you guessed it, pdf files.
You can do broad searches or get creative and add words you think might lead to interesting stuff. Check out this search with the term “injuries.”
One of the top results is a form for a vehicle accident report that is filled out by city employees whenever they’re involved in an accident. All the entries and check boxes in the form suggest this information is typed into a database of some kind. And if that’s the case, that means you can request the data, analyze it yourself, and see if there’s a story lurking in those numbers.
Using the Texas Public Information Act, I asked for any database the city had that tracked insurance claims from vehicle accidents. The process took awhile and there was a lot of back and forth. At first, the city’s Risk Management Office only sent me a pdf with two categories of information: case numbers and dates. The format and info was worthless.
But eventually they sent more complete spreadsheets that tracked the dollar amount of the claim, whether it was denied, and a brief description about what happened. It was interesting reading.
No one outside City Hall had ever looked at this data before. Thanks to a nifty Google search, now everybody can.
The Texas attorney general’s office announced yesterday that it has sued the Texas Highway Patrol Museum, a nonprofit telemarketing organization based in San Antonio that raises millions of dollars in the name of helping state troopers.
I had always been curious about the museum, which is housed in a brick building at St. Mary’s and Alamo streets but attracts few visitors. In October, we examined the museum’s tax records and found that only a fraction of the nearly $12 million in revenue raised by the museum’s telemarketers actually went towards the charitable causes it touted. For every dollar raised, less than a penny was spent on Department of Public Safety troopers and their families.
Attorney General Greg Abbott’s lawsuit reveals new details about what, exactly, donors’ money was spent on. State investigators obtained financial information and credit card statements from the museum, and found employees had paid for cigars, liquor, vacations, meals and “exorbitant” vet bills for an “office cat.” The lawsuit describes an organization with few controls over how money was spent, and an absentee board that seldom asked questions.
Here’s an annotated copy of the lawsuit:
In our last story, I interviewed Scott Henson at the criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast, who had received a telemarketing call from the museum in August. Scott wasn’t happy that the caller initially claimed to be with the Texas Highway Patrol — as if the caller were really with the Department of Public Safety. “This group is about as much about helping troopers as buzzards are about helping roadkill,” Scott wrote at the time. He called yesterday’s lawsuit “way past time.”
The museum’s assets have been frozen and it’s been closed since Friday. Its lawyer, Kim Brown, called the lawsuit “heavy handed” and said the expenses were justified.
What about the cigars?
Prizes for telemarketers, he said.
Drinks for office parties.
The office cat?
The vet bills for the cat were unavoidable.
The lawsuit lays out more expenses for trips, meals and cars that the state describes as wasteful spending. But Brown said the museum is hardly a fly-by-night organization that defrauds people. The small museum has operated in San Antonio for years, he said, and while it has high overhead costs, it does spend money on charitable causes.
The attorney general is seeking to dissolve the nonprofit museum and its related entities. The next step is a hearing for a temporary injunction that has yet to be scheduled.
Here’s a searchable library of all primary documents we’ve obtained about the museum. If you’ve had any experiences with the museum or its telemarketers, feel free to contact us.