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Geomatics, Natural Hazards and Risk Vol. 3, No. 4, November 2012, 311–323 Person-place-time analysis of vehicle fatalities caused by ﬂash ﬂoods in Texas HATIM O. SHARIF*, Md. MOAZZEM HOSSAIN, TERRANCE JACKSON and SAZZAD BIN-SHAFIQUE Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Texas at San Antonio, One UTSA Circle, San Antonio, TX 78249, USA (Received 6 July 2011; in ﬁnal form 15 August 2011) A signiﬁcant number of crashes on roads are caused by adverse weather conditions. Among the most serious consequences of rainfall and ﬂooding in regard to road safety are the motor vehicle-related ﬂash ﬂood fatalities. These fatalities are of particular concern in Texas. Information on motor vehicle fatalities caused by ﬂash ﬂoods was extracted from the National Climatic Data Center Storm Data reports. Review of reports on ﬂash ﬂood fatalities in general, where the death circumstances are provided, reveals that most fatalities are motor vehicle-related (80%). Moreover, data from the reports indicate that from 1959 to 2009 the number of motor vehicle-related ﬂash ﬂood fatalities in Texas exceeds by far the total number of ﬂood fatalities in any other state. Demographic analysis of the ﬂash ﬂood fatalities indicates that, in Texas, all ages are at risk and that males are much more aﬀected than females. Spatial analysis indicates that the highest numbers of fatalities occur in counties having major urban areas. The increase in the frequency and intensity of storms and ﬂoods that is projected to result from climate changes and variability, and the rapid urbanization in the region may considerably increase the impacts of weather on road safety in Texas. 1. Introduction Road safety is signiﬁcantly aﬀected by weather conditions. In fact, weather conditions are reported to be responsible for up to 25% of crashes on the United States highways (Pisano et al. 2008). The eﬀects of weather on road safety include reduced visibility, reduced pavement friction, malfunctioning of traﬃc control devices, and ﬂood water on the road (e.g. Khan et al. 2008). Rainfall and subsequent ﬂood are reported to have more impact on road safety than other weather-related factors. For instance, Goodwin (2002) found out that rainfall accounted for 80% of the injuries and 69% of the fatalities on US highways that were caused by poor weather conditions. Other studies reported that rainfall increases the number of road crashes by 100% or more (e.g. Bertness 1980, Brodsky and Hakkert 1988, Andrey et al. 2003). An interesting ﬁnding of empirical studies is that rainfall leads to a stronger increase in the number of fatal accidents when it comes after a dry spell (e.g. Koetse and Rietveld 2009). Eisenberg and Warner (2005) also found that although *Corresponding author. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Geomatics, Natural Hazards and Risk ISSN 1947-5705 Print/ISSN 1947-5713 Online ª 2012 Taylor & Francis http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/19475705.2011.615343 312 H.O. Sharif et al. precipitation, including rainfall and snow, signiﬁcantly increases the number of accidents, it appears to reduce the severity of accidents. Flooding is the most damaging consequence of rainfall. Floods, in general, are naturally occurring events dependent not only on rainfall rates and durations, but also on other factors such as the topography, land use, soil types of the catchment area, and antecedent moisture conditions (Sharif et al. 2006). A ﬂash ﬂood is a short term ﬂood event that occurs less than 6 hours after heavy rainfall has ended, and requires immediate action to protect life and property. (In contrast to a ﬂash ﬂood, a typical river ﬂood usually occurs beyond 6 hours after heavy rainfall has ended.) Flood-related fatalities in the US have been the topic of several studies. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) considers ﬂooding ‘America’s Number One Natural Hazard’ (Brown 2005). Moreover, ﬂoods are the most common and widespread of all weather-related natural disasters. Between 1983 and 2003, ﬂooding caused an average of 98 deaths and $4.5 billion in property damage per year in the United States (NWS 2005, Downton et al. 2005). Despite ﬂood management eﬀorts in many communities, US ﬂood damages remain high, largely due to increasing population and property development in ﬂood-prone areas (e.g. Changnon 1998, Pielke and Downton 2000, Burby 2001). Although the dominant characteristic of hurricanes is their strong winds, most fatalities and damage are caused by ﬂooding due to high runoﬀ produced by torrential rains and storm surge propelled by these winds. Research for the US East Coast and Gulf area shows that the eﬀect on transport and transport infrastructure is substantial (Koetse and Rietveld 2009). The most serious and irreversible consequence of ﬂooding is the number of ﬂood- related fatalities. French et al. (1983), in one of the ﬁrst published studies examining ﬂood fatalities in detail, found that most of the ﬂash ﬂoods during 1969–1981 occurred during the warm season spanning July–September, with September representing the peak fatality month. They also found over 90% of ﬂash ﬂood fatalities were due to drowning, and of those 42% were vehicle-related. Most ﬂood- related deaths are due to drowning, which can be caused by several actions such as driving into the ﬂood or trying to save a person from a ﬂood. In the US, over half of these casualties involve people driving into ﬂooded roads (ﬁgure 1), and then either drowning in their vehicles or escaping only to perish in the open water (Drobot et al. 2007). Ashley and Ashley (2008) reported 4586 ﬂood fatalities in the US between 1959 and 2005. They found that the number of fatalities varied from year to year, with anomalously high years coinciding with either tropical system-produced ﬂoods or sudden ﬂash ﬂoods, often associated with structural failures of dams or levees. Ruin et al. (2007) used cognitive mapping to identify several factors inﬂuencing motorists’ ﬂash ﬂood risk perception. Younger drivers underestimate ﬂood risk, as do drivers of lower income and drivers with no children. They found that urban people underestimate the risk for a car to be swept away by running water and are relatively more threatened by walking and driving in ﬂood conditions than are people living in rural areas. One of the most dangerous ﬂash ﬂood areas in the US is the urban corridor between Dallas and San Antonio in Central and South-central Texas called locally the ‘Flash Flood Alley’, ﬁgure 2. Actually, within the conterminous US, the greatest concentration of exceptional ﬂood peaks is at the Balcones Escarpment of central Texas, where maximum US rainfall amounts apparently coincide with basin physiography to produce many of the largest measured US ﬂoods (O’Connor and Flash ﬂood vehicle fatalities 313 Figure 1. Road inundation caused by ﬂash ﬂoods in San Antonio. Courtesy of the City of San Antonio (used with permission). Available in colour online. Costa 2004). This paper discusses the results of a study of motor vehicle-related ﬂash ﬂood fatalities in Texas for the period between 1959 and 2009. 2. Methods Information on ﬂood fatalities and damage can be obtained from health and safety authorities and other sources. However, the most comprehensive source for ﬂood fatality and injury data in the US is the Storm Data publication, which is maintained by the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) of the National Oceanic and 314 H.O. Sharif et al. Figure 2. The Flash Flood Alley. Obtained from the Flood Safety Education Project http:// www.ﬂoodsafety.com (used with permission). Available in colour online. Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This monthly publication includes a chronological listing of state-by-state fatalities, injuries and property damage for all weather-related events. Event types include ﬂoods, ﬂash ﬂoods, hurricanes, tornadoes and other weather-related events. Storm Data includes the location and time of fatality or injury by county for most of the events. NCDC Storm Data also provides detailed description of the weather event associated with fatalities. In addition, Storm Data includes narratives that provide detailed information on casualties, weather records and other anecdotal information for signiﬁcant weather events. Information included in the Storm Data publication comes from the National Weather Service (NWS) oﬃces and personnel, the media, law enforcement authorities, government agencies, private companies and individuals. The operation manual for Storm Data (Mandt 2002) describes the criteria for inclusion of weather- related fatalities and injuries in the publication. The Storm Data was formerly called Climatological Data in 1950 and recorded only tornados. In 1955 thunderstorm and wind data were added. In 1959 this publication was oﬃcially named Storm Data and recording of all unusual weather phenomena data that are included in today’s publication began. The NCDC, the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service and NOAA prepare and distribute Storm Data. In this study, we inventoried and reviewed ﬂood fatality information for Texas included in the NCDC Storm Data publication for the period between 1959 and 2009. A total of 612 publications were reviewed. The main diﬀerence between this and other previous studies (e.g. Ashley and Ashley 2008) is that instead of reviewing summary statistics, we examined the original publications for the entire period to extract all the reported descriptions of each fatality. Descriptive statistics derived in this study include the date, time, location and weather conditions under which the ﬂood fatality occurred. Demographic analysis of the ﬂood fatalities was also performed. Spatial analysis was also used to identify locations where ﬂood fatalities may be clustered (e.g. in and around urban centres). Flash ﬂood vehicle fatalities 315 3. Results Floods, especially ﬂash ﬂoods, are a serious hazard in Texas. Examination of the 1959–2009 NCDC Storm Data records indicates that Texas is the only state that reported ﬂood-related fatalities every single year during that period. By far, Texas leads the nation in ﬂood fatalities. From 1959 through 2009 there were three times more fatalities in Texas (854) than in the next leading state, Pennsylvania (265). Table 1 lists the ﬁve states with the most number of ﬂood fatalities. Flood events are typically classiﬁed in Storm Data as ﬂoods, ﬂash ﬂoods (deﬁned earlier), or ﬂoods due to tropical systems. The distribution of fatalities by ﬂood type is shown in table 2. About 68% (584 out of 854) of Texas ﬂood fatalities are caused by ﬂash ﬂoods. 3.1 Person Storm Data provides the gender of only 81% (286 out of 351) of motor vehicle- related fatalities caused by ﬂash ﬂoods and the ages of only 58% (202 out of 351) of the victims. For cases when the gender of the victim is known, the ratio of males to females is 1.7 to 1 (180 to 106). The age distribution for victims with known age is shown in table 3. The age group with the most fatalities is young adults (39 known victims). Infants, children, teenagers and the elderly (less than 20 years of age and more than 59 years) represent 47% of the victims (94 out of 202). The number of victims who are infants or young children is signiﬁcant (26). 3.2 Place The distribution of ﬂash ﬂood fatalities in Texas with known activity/location from NCDC Storm Data is shown in table 4. ‘In water’ describes the case when a person intentionally walked into the ﬂoodwater. Review of the data reveals that 80% (351 out of 440) of the fatalities with known circumstances are motor vehicle-related. Table 1. The ﬁve states with the highest numbers of total ﬂood fatalities, 1959–2009. State Number of fatalities Texas 854 Pennsylvania 265 California 248 South Dakota 244 Virginia 237 Table 2. Flood fatalities classiﬁed by ﬂood type. Flood type Fatalities Percentage Flash ﬂood 584 68% Flood 221 26% Flood due to tropical storms 42 5% Coastal/tidal/river ﬂooding 7 1% 316 H.O. Sharif et al. This percentage is higher than reported in other studies. For example, according to the Flood Safety Education Project (2010), most ﬂood drownings are vehicle related, and in Texas, 76% of ﬂood deaths are vehicle related. The circumstances of death (i.e. whether the death was motor vehicle-related or not) are not described in Storm Data for 25% (144 out of 584) of ﬂash ﬂood fatalities. Conﬁrmed motor vehicle fatalities caused by ﬂash ﬂoods were reported for all but three years of the record, as shown in ﬁgure 3. The 51-year average number of conﬁrmed fatalities is 6.9 per year. The monthly distribution of motor vehicle-related ﬂash ﬂood fatalities and the average of the climatological mean rainfall in the major urban areas with highest ﬂood fatalities are shown in ﬁgure 4. The two lines have similar distributions and peaks. The correlation coeﬃcient between the two series is 0.90. Table 3. Number of motor vehicle-related ﬂood fatalities classiﬁed by age. The age is not provided in Storm Data for 149 fatalities. Age group Fatalities Percentage 0–9 26 13% 10–19 26 13% 20–29 39 19% 30–39 17 8% 40–49 24 12% 50–59 28 14% 60–69 21 10% 70–79 14 7% 80–89 7 4% Table 4. Number of ﬂash ﬂood fatalities classiﬁed by activity/location. The activity/location is not provided in Storm Data for 144 fatalities. Activity/location Fatalities Percentage Boat 8 2% In water 65 15% Mobile home 6 1% Permanent home 10 2% Vehicle 351 80% Figure 3. Motor vehicle-related ﬂash ﬂood fatalities in Texas from 1959 to 2009. Flash ﬂood vehicle fatalities 317 The Texas counties with the highest numbers of vehicle fatalities caused by ﬂash ﬂoods are listed in table 5. These ten counties account for more than 50% of the fatalities. Figure 5 shows motor vehicle-related ﬂood fatalities in Texas categorized by county. Eight counties had 11 or more motor vehicle-related ﬂood deaths, 15 counties had 4 to 10 ﬂood deaths, and 67 counties had 1 to 3 deaths. 3.3 Time Storm Data also associated motor vehicle fatalities caused by ﬂash ﬂood with time of occurrence. The time was reported for 306 (out of 351) of the fatalities. It is not clear whether the time reported in Storm Data is the time of the accident or the time of death. As seen in table 6, most of the 306 fatalities (55%) have taken place at night. 4. Discussion A worrying consequence of rainfall road safety is the motor vehicle-related ﬂash ﬂood fatalities. In Texas, the number of motor vehicle-related ﬂash ﬂood fatalities Figure 4. Motor vehicle-related ﬂash ﬂood fatalities in Texas and mean precipitation in the Flash Flood Alley region by month. Table 5. Texas counties with the highest numbers of vehicle fatalities caused by ﬂash ﬂoods. County Fatalities Bexar 30 Tarrant 30 Travis 24 Dallas 22 Harris 16 Kerr 16 Edwards 12 Bell 11 Real 9 Burnet 8 318 H.O. Sharif et al. Figure 5. Map of motor vehicle-related ﬂash ﬂood fatalities by Texas county. Available in colour online. Table 6. Number of motor vehicle fatalities caused by ﬂash ﬂoods classiﬁed by time of occurrence. The time is not provided in Storm Data for 45 fatalities. Time Fatalities Percentage Morning 84 35% Afternoon 57 10% Night 165 55% far exceeds the total number of ﬂood fatalities in any other state between 1959 and 2009. There is an increasing trend in the number of annual fatalities. That is probably due to the increasing population density in Texas, ﬁgure 3. Years associated with major ﬂoods witnessed the highest numbers of fatalities (e.g. 1979, 1981, 2007). A review of the data indicates that 80% (351 out of 440) of the ﬂash ﬂood fatalities with known circumstances are motor vehicle-related. The number of those fatalities in Texas is expected to be actually higher than 351, as we expect that a signiﬁcant number among the fatalities whose circumstances are not provided would be motor vehicle-related. More than 68% of ﬂoods that result in fatalities in Texas are ﬂash ﬂoods, which typically arrive immediately after the storm with little or no warning. Tropical systems, although associated with very intense rainfall and ensuing ﬂoods, result in Flash ﬂood vehicle fatalities 319 a very small number of fatalities (less than 5% of the fatalities). This small number may have several causes. First, tropical systems are typically forecasted with longer lead times (many hours or days), and the warnings are thus more widely broadcasted to the general public. Secondly, the longer lead times allow emergency personnel to develop a heightened awareness for greater involvement. Thirdly, tropical storm system ﬂoods are less frequent than ﬂash ﬂoods in Texas. A review of ages of motor vehicle-related ﬂash ﬂood accidents indicates that all age groups are at risk of dying from ﬂoods, including signiﬁcant numbers of victims of ages below 20 years or above 60 years. Signiﬁcantly more males die in motor vehicle accidents during a ﬂash ﬂood than females. This agrees with studies that addressed vehicle-related fatalities in general. McKenna et al. (1998), for example, suggested that the presence of a female passenger signiﬁcantly reduces the likelihood of an accident, and Chen et al. (2000) reported that the presence of a male passenger almost doubles the per capita death rate, regardless of the driver. Motor vehicle-related ﬂash ﬂood fatalities appear to be related to topography and climate. Very few fatalities occurred in counties with dry climate even when the population density is high. El Paso County is one such example. This agrees with the ﬁndings of Khan et al. (2008), who found signiﬁcant spatial correlation between the number of accidents and weather patterns. Fatalities are clustered in counties located along the Balcones Escarpment and those that include major urban centres. The fatality numbers in Harris County are smaller than some counties along the Balcones Escarpment although it is one of the counties with the highest number of ﬂood fatalities in general. The monthly distribution of motor vehicle-related ﬂash ﬂood fatalities closely follows the monthly distribution of rainfall in the ﬂash ﬂood region in Texas Flash Flood Alley. This indicates that the frequency of storms plays an important role in increasing the ﬂash ﬂood hazard. Other studies have found a similar correlation between road accidents and rainfall (e.g. Levine et al. 1995). Most motor vehicle-related ﬂash ﬂood deaths in Texas appear to have occurred at night (table 6). This increase in fatalities at night may be attributed to people not being able to see or estimate the depth and speed of the ﬂood water in inadequate lighting. Some earlier studies reported that 75% of ﬂash-ﬂood deaths occurred during the hours of twilight and darkness (Mooney 1983). The general behavioural reaction to severe weather includes trip cancelling, trip shortening, route changing and more use of public transportation (De Dios Ortuzar and Willumsen 2001). The behavioural response of a driver to poor weather conditions on the road, however, is inﬂuenced by several factors. Kates (1971) reported that factors that may aﬀect risk perception include the nature and features of the natural hazard (its magnitude, duration, frequency and temporal spacing), and the recency, frequency and intensity of personal experience with past events of similar nature. The dense road networks and numerous low water crossings throughout Texas may be contributing to the higher recurrence rates of ﬂoods that pose a danger to vehicles (ﬁgure 6). Several ephemeral streams in Texas, especially along the Balcones Escarpment, have steep slopes. The highly intermittent ﬂow of these streams reduces the overall ﬁnancial eﬃciency of such large, expensive structures at road-stream crossings. Therefore, many crossings are constructed as armoured sag vertical curves, often with a small corrugated metal culvert pipe as a relief structure to prevent long-term ponding of water upstream of the roadway embankment. In ﬂood 320 H.O. Sharif et al. Figure 6. Map of some of the low water crossings in San Antonio. Courtesy of the City of San Antonio (used with permission). Available in colour online. conditions water has to ﬂow over the road. These low-water crossings pose immediate danger to vehicles that try to cross during ﬂooding conditions. It is at these crossings where most motor vehicle-related ﬂash ﬂood fatalities happen. What many drivers do not know is that, according to the Federal Emergency Administration (FEMA 2010), six inches (0.15 m) of water will reach the bottom of most passenger cars causing loss of control and possible stalling, and two feet (0.61 m) of rushing water can carry away most vehicles, including sport utility vehicles and pickups. Excerpts from the narratives in Storm Data that describe some the circumstances that lead to fatalities are shown in table 7. Driving into ﬂood water appears to be the cause of the majority of motor vehicle-related ﬂash ﬂood fatalities in Texas. This behaviour is mostly intentional and controllable. Solutions such as installation of traﬃc barricades, alarm signs, and water depth gauges at hazardous locations may not be enough. There are many practical limitations to these installations. Depth gauges, for example, do not necessarily convey the water depth and the implication of that depth to the lay person. Depth gauges may be improved by providing colours to indicate hazardous water depths. Barricades, on the other hand, are often installed or uninstalled too late. The driver may see barricades and choose to drive around or think that his/her truck or sports utility vehicle can cross the low lying water. Some studies conﬁrm that passengers play a major role in controlling the behaviour of the driver (e.g. Chen et al. 2000). Modifying this behaviour will involve educating the public about ﬂood risks and the seriousness of ﬂood warnings. Siegrist and Gutscher (2008) found that people could envisage what physical risk a ﬂood poses, but they could not envisage the negative aﬀect that could be associated with such an event. In order to boost mitigation motivation, they suggested that risk communication must also help people to envisage the negative emotional consequences of a ﬂood. Flash ﬂood vehicle fatalities 321 Table 7. Examples of Storm Data descriptions of the circumstances that led to vehicle fatalities caused by ﬂash ﬂoods. Date County Storm Data narrative 8/16/2007 Bexar The area of extremely heavy rainfall associated with the remains of Tropical Storm Erin continued to spread northwestward across Bexar County, with a general 4 to 5 inches of rain over the county. Near midnight a young woman was driving with three friends and a baby near North Star Mall when she accidentally drove her sport utility vehicle into deeper water where it was slammed against a bridge and then was swept into a drainage ditch. The three other adults in the vehicle were able to get the baby out of the vehicle through the window and escape. But when the three looked back for the driver, she was gone. Her body was found later by emergency responders when the water receded. 9/05/2007 Bexar Up to 2 inches of rain fell over the northwestern part of the county. At around 1:00 am a man and a woman were washed away in a four door sedan as they attempted to cross the Tower View Bridge on Scenic Loop Road, which was in ﬂood due to Helotes Creek. The man was later rescued with minor bruises to his arms and torso. The woman’s body was found less than a mile downstream at 3:19 pm. 3/30/2008 San Augustine Widespread ﬂooding reported across the northern portion of the county. Flooding was severe on County Road 21 in town and at the circle and along County Road 103. Three foot of water was also reported over Highway 3079. One fatality was reported when two people driving on State Highway 21 ran into a ditch and became caught in swift moving water. One occupant in the vehicle was swept away in the vehicle. 4/12/2009 Harris Heavy rainfall persisted across the county as several thunderstorms produced rainfall totals of 8 to 10 inches across the county. Numerous roads were closed in areas of the county, including Jersey Village, Houston Heights, La Porte, Pasadena, Webster, and near the Houston Hobby airport. The highest one hour rainfall total was 6.90 inches recorded at Bay Area Blvd and Clear Creek. This exceeds the highest one hour rainfall rate measured during Tropical Storms. In the northern part of the county ﬁve children were killed after the car they were riding in inadvertently drove into a drainage ditch that was ﬁlled with nine feet of water from the heavy rainfall. Two adults and one child were able to escape the ﬂoodwaters, but the ﬁve younger children, all under 7 years old, were not able to escape. 5/03/2009 Upshur Numerous counties and parishes were ﬂooded with rainfall amounts in excess of 6 inches in a 12 hour period common. A 78 year old man drowned when ﬂood waters swept away his automobile on a rural northwestern Upshur County Road. The man was found in his back seat on Fox Road. 10/21/2009 Burnet A woman was killed while trying to cross a low water crossing. Karen Eichelberger, age 47, was driving home after working in Austin this Wednesday night. She tried to cross the ﬂooded low water crossing on Deer Springs Drive in her neighbourhood when her 1994 Jeep was apparently forced oﬀ the road and into the creek. Her body was found one half mile downstream from where the Jeep was located. 322 H.O. Sharif et al. The consequences of rainfall and ﬂooding on transport safety are well studied. However, motor vehicle-related ﬂood fatalities have received little attention in the transportation literature. There is evidence that rainfall intensity and ﬂooding frequency are increasing in many regions around the globe. In addition, studies predict that the intensity and frequency of storms and hurricanes in Texas will rise due to climate change and variability (IPCC 2007). Although rainfall and ﬂooding are believed to reduce the severity of traﬃc accidents (e.g. Koetse and Rietveld 2009), they cause signiﬁcant motor vehicle fatalities in Texas. Attention to this problem may help reduce these fatalities. In addition, physical and hydraulic ﬁeld investigation is needed to better understand the factors that lead to the high frequency of these events in Texas and the impact on climate change of these factors. 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"Geomatics, Natural Hazards and Risk" – Taylor & Francis
Published: Nov 1, 2012
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