ActivePaper Archive Cracking Down on Lea’s Roads - Hobbs News Sun, 7/26/2019

Cracking Down on Lea’s Roads

8 fatalities this month prompts state police response


Grass along the New Mexico Highway 128 about three miles east of Jal shows burn marks following a fiery head-on vehicle collision on July 11. The Lea County Sheriff’s Office and New Mexico State Police officials have started joint highway patrolling in Lea County following a rash of fatal crashes.

Following two fatal crashes in Lea County this month that claimed the lives of eight people, the New Mexico Department of Public Safety announced Wednesday that state police are immediately beginning joint highway patrols with Lea County sheriff’s deputies.

The Department of Public Safety said in addition to targeting reckless and inattentive drivers, state police commercial vehicle enforcement officers will be targeting companies who operate unsafe commercial motor vehicles.

“Thee will be zero tolerance for drivers who fail to obey New Mexico traffic laws in the areas of the operation,” the Department of Public Safety said in a news release. “New Mexico State Police, Lea County Sheriff’s Office and New Mexico Department of Transportation will be partnering to find long-term solutions to the traffic safety issues that have recently plagued Lea County.”

The Department of Public Safety said state police have investigated seven fatal crashes in Lea County this year that killed 13 people.

Killer history

Just Wednesday, three people were killed in an early morning crash at the intersection of U.S. Highway 62/180 and State Road 529, west of Hobbs, when the driver of oilfield tractor-trailer did not stop at the intersection for unknown reasons.

Police said a pickup truck being driven westbound on U.S. 62/180 crashed into the tanker that was southbound on SR 529, killing the pickup driver, 47-year-old Brady Steele of Dublin, Texas, and his two passengers, 25-year-old Dakota Lujan and 21-year-old Nygel Key, both of Fritch, Texas.

The driver of the trailer, James Law, 60, of Hobbs, was not injured in the 5:45 a.m. crash.

As with many recent fatal crashes that have a propensity to occur in the early mornings, police attributed the crash to driver inattention. Law was cited for failure to yield. Police said alcohol is not believed to be a factor and seatbelts were properly used by both drivers.

Wednesday’s fatal crash on U.S. 62/180 follows a fiery crash on New Mexico 128 on July 11 that killed five people.

State police said the 7 a.m. crash happened when a pickup truck driven by 22-year-old Arturo Barboza of Odessa crossed the center line and crashed head-on into an eastbound tractor-trailer rig, as both vehicles caught fire.

Barboza’s three passengers, Alonso Hernandez, 19, and Enrique Leon, 58, both of Odessa, and 25-year-old Justin Brown of Montgomery, Texas, were also killed in the crash that occurred about 3 miles east of Jal. All of them were oilfield workers.

The semi driver, Rayshawnda Riley, 27, of Arlington, Texas, also was killed. Police said it was unclear why Barboza crossed the center line. Police said the rig was used for hauling sand but was empty at the time of the crash.

The quintuple-fatality on July 11 sparked renewed concerns about the safety of NM 128, on which there nine fatal crashes in 2018. There have been eight auto deaths on NM 128 so far in 2019.

NM 128, also known as Jal Highway and derisively known as Killer 128, stretches only 60 miles from New Mexico 31 east of Loving to the Texas state line. Like other state highways, it is maintained by the New Mexico Department of Transportation.

Sheriff response

Lea County Sheriff Corey Helton told the Lea County commissioners Thursday morning that the number of fatal accidents has become a great concern for his office and county residents.

“When these guys and gals are getting up going to work wondering if they’re going to make it home, I can’t sleep at night with that,” Helton said. “I keep track of these and that cost is too high for somebody that wants to go to work and they have to take their life in their hands.”

Helton said he reached out to the state police district commander a few days ago and discussed some of the recent crash statistics. Helton said there were 51 auto deaths in Lea, Chaves and Eddy counties in 2017 and 2018.

“As of right now, we’re sitting at 19, and that cost is too high,” he said. “As a sheriff, I cannot sit back and let this happen.”

Safety corridor

In March 2018, state transportation officials established a safety corridor on an 18-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 285 from mile marker 2 near the Texas State Line to mile marker 20 in Loving.

The safety corridor is intended to encourage drivers to slow down and keep their eyes on the road. State police increased patrols and doubled fines for speeding and other traffic violations and new LED signs warn drivers entering the corridor to drive safely.

By the end of the year, the state Department of Transportation will begin a $135 million project to rebuild that stretch of road. The project calls for adding turn lanes, widening lanes and shoulders, and filling potholes.

The 285 safety corridor was established although there were fewer fatalities — four— on the stretch of U.S. 285 in 2017 than on other local highways.

“I was surprised to learn that (Highway) 128 on the Lea County side is not designated a safety corridor,” Helton said. “So maybe we can get that in the works coming down in the future because that would provide us some federal money, it would lower the speed limits and there are some things that we can get from that. I welcome any help from the state police with that.”

Helton said U.S. Highway 380, which connects Tatum and Roswell, is also becoming too dangerous.

“We’ve got to partner with the state police because it takes our deputies out of the rural areas where they’re supposed to be to be out there to be the highway patrol,” he said.


The Department of Public Safety said state police are teaming up with the Sheriff’s Office in response to an increase in motor vehicle crashes in southern Lea County. Helton said the last major joint law enforcement traffic operation in Lea County was in October.

Helton said most crashes are a result of driver inattention, cellphones and impatience. State police said most of the recent fatal crashes in Lea County were preventable, attributing driver inattention and excessive speed as the main factors.

“It’s a gamut of things,” the sheriff said. “We’re going to be teaming up in the next few months to do some operations down there. It just can’t continue, it can’t. The Lea County Sheriff’s Office is spending most of their assets on the highways, and that’s taking us out of the rural areas, and that’s not our purview. So as the sheriff, I feel like we’ve got to do something.”

Helton said although it isn’t something he wanted to do, he thinks he’s going to imlement a full-time, dedicated traffic unit in the next 60 to 90 days.

“We’re not sitting back letting this happen. We’re doing everything we can. We’ve got (State Trade Expansion Program) grant money, we’re down there, we’re flooding that area, but it’s just not doing anything. We’re not seeing any differences,” Helton said. “We’re working through a lot of things and this traffic unit will be able to reconstruct accidents and do the fatal accidents and also enforce the commercial vehicle code. If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it all. I think it’s time.”

Jeff Tucker can be reached at .