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Traffic accidents an unwanted consequence of the Bakken oil boom

Roads in North Dakota once used to film car commercials are now packed with oil industry trucks

Watch "Death on the Bakken Shale," Fault Lines' investigation into why North Dakota's worker fatality rate is so high. It airs Monday, January 12, at 9 pm Eastern time/6 pm Pacific on Al Jazeera America. | Click here to find Al Jazeera in your area.


Reckless driving, treacherous road conditions and a dizzying onslaught of vehicles traversing the heart of western North Dakota has left the state with an unprecedented number of vehicle accidents and fatalities.

According to the state’s Department of Transportation (NDDOT), in 2013, one person died in a crash every two and a half days, one crash occurred in a roadway under construction every day and more than one speed-related crash took place about every four hours. Federal statistics point to North Dakota as having one of the highest frequencies of highway fatalities involving commercial trucks in the U.S.

Murtaza Mandviwala, a North Dakota-based trucker, believes the alarming data is in part due to drivers who are violating safety regulations, by, among other things, spending too many hours on the road.

"It's go, go, go, and they ignore the rules," he said, echoing what many other workers have said about the culture of flouting safety amid the oil boom.

Mandviwala works out of Williston, N.D., as a hazardous materials driver. He’s worked for several companies in the Bakken since 2013 and has noticed that each had a different attitude toward regulations that would keep their employees safe on the job.

"Some companies are hypocritical—when it comes to money, they look the other way," he said. "And some companies practice what they preach."

It’s been six years since oil companies moved into the region to draw nearly 1 million barrels of oil per day from the Bakken shale formation, making North Dakota the second highest producer of crude oil in the nation behind Texas. According to a 2012 Energy Works North Dakota study, 13,000 new jobs will spring up in the oil and natural gas industry in 2015 and an additional 15,000 will be created by 2020.

Accompanying the oil operations was a large spike in traffic, especially to the 17 oil-producing counties in western North Dakota. During the height of the oil boom, between 2010 and 2012, North Dakota saw a 22 percent increase in traffic on roadways. The western side of the state experienced more than twice that, a 53 percent increase.

Trey Collins was side-swiped by a semi trailer when driving home from the oil fields a few months ago. He moved from South Dakota to take a job on the Bakken oil shale a year-and-a-half ago and says that many of the people attracted to the employment opportunities in the boom have little experience in the industry.

“It’s inexperienced drivers who haven’t been driving for 20 or 30 years,” he said, describing the truck drivers who are on the roads these days.

One of the most overrun roadways in North Dakota is U.S. Hwy. 85, specifically the 40-mile stretch from Watford City to Williston, which goes west and then north. It was once a quiet, two-lane highway for locals. Today, it is a notorious hot spot for vehicle accidents, as it serves as one of the few major routes for oil industry traffic. More than 12,000 vehicles travel the road each day.

There was no good way to predict what was going to happen. It was the sheer amount of traffic that took a toll on the roads. They were never built for the size of the trucks.

Jamie Olson

North Dakota Dept. of Transportation

“It's amazing what the population brings to the town in terms of danger,” says Dr. Gary Ramage, an emergency room physician and resident who has lived in Watford City for 20 years. “When you have that much movement of oil and that many trucks that are coming through, anybody who is on the road is taking their life in their own hands.”

In 2013, 20 percent of the traffic fatalities in North Dakota took place in McKenzie County, where Watford City is the county seat. Eighteen people died on its roads in 2012, with 24 more lives taken in 2013.

The oil boom took everyone by surprise, including the NDDOT, said public information officer Jamie Olson.

“There was no good way to predict what was going to happen,” Olson said. “It was the sheer amount of traffic that took a toll on the roads. They were never built for the size of the trucks.”

Communities once sparsely populated, founded on an agriculture economy and surrounded by open vistas, durum fields and wildlife have now become small metropolises. The community has scrambled to build new schools, health care centers, restaurants and housing developments, as well as roads.

The Bakken oil boom has brought tens of thousands of new jobs to North Dakota, but it's also put a heavy burden on the state's roads.
Josh Rushing for Al Jazeera America

“Those roads you used to see on car commercials, now it’s just bumper to bumper,” said Eric Brooks, regional director for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s office in the state capital Bismarck.

Transportation officials say progress is being made as they continue to work on revamping roadways to accommodate the high volume of traffic they see now. One of the flagship projects completed last year was the partial reconstruction of Highway 85 between Watford City and Williston. Final construction to expand it from two to four lanes begins later this year.

“These roads don’t get built overnight,” Olson said. “The public has seen a lot of work done, but there’s still more work to do.”

NDDOT nearly quadrupled its construction program between 2007 and 2012, when it spent $250 million on road construction. Last year, that number swelled to more than $800 million. The department built two bypasses around Watford City and a bypass around Alexander. A temporary bypass was built for Williston in 2012 and will be finalized this year, Olson said.

For the first time in three years, the number of fatal crashes in North Dakota is down from 147 in 2012 to 123 in 2014. For Dakota McGee, who took a job in the Bakken a year ago, the road improvements are a plus, but being on the North Dakota highways still makes him nervous.

“It’s worth it to have a good job, but there’s a risk,” he said. “People just don’t have road courtesy. And with the weather, it’s extremely dangerous.”


Additional reporting by Lucy Kennedy.

In "Death on the Bakken Shale," Fault Lines investigates why the oil boom in North Dakota has brought with it the highest worker fatality rates in the country—and who should be held responsible. The film airs on Al Jazeera America Monday, January 12, at 9 p.m. Eastern time. It will air again that evening at 9 p.m. Pacific time.   

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