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Texas 71 deadly

By Lew K. Cohn

Managing Editor

The Highlander

The curvy, hilly stretch of Texas 71 between Spicewood and the Pedernales River bridge may seem serene and majestic to some, but it certainly can lay claim to being one of the most dangerous stretches of road in the Hill Country.

Since last year, at least five people have died on that leg of Texas 71, including earlier this month, when three Round Rock women died after their vehicle crashed into a charter bus carrying the Huston-Tillotson University baseball team on its way back to Austin from a game in New Mexico.

The women failed to yield the right of way to the bus as they turned left from Fall Creek Road and pulled out in front of it shortly before midnight on April 1. June Smith, 18, Isabella Torres, 17, and Taylor Mendez, 17, all of Round Rock, were killed in the crash. The bus driver, Adolphus Kimbro, was injured and taken to a local hospital.

Traffic on Texas 71 at that T intersection travels at 70 miles per hour and there is no stop required for traffic headed east or west on the highway, while traffic exiting Fall Creek Road has a stop sign. There has been no indication the bus was doing anything improper and it was likely driving close to the speed limit at the time of the crash, which was 70 miles per hour.

There are no street lights along Texas 71 at that intersection and, according to MoonGiant.com, only 25 percent or less of the moon was visible that night with a waxing crescent, meaning there would not have been a great deal of light to see oncoming vehicles, especially ones moving at a high rate of speed. There is a big curve just west of Fall Creek Road that the bus would have been coming around before it approached.

Last November, a three-vehicle wreck killed a Marble Falls woman and her son and in that case, it was the fault of another driver which caused the fatal accident. Blanco County Sheriff's deputies charged Bala Chandra Sekhar Gutti, 29, with two counts of intoxication manslaughter for the deaths of 46-year-old Cynthia Ann Vega and her 17-year-old son, Santiago, a senior at Lake Travis High School, on Nov. 28, 2016.

A DPS report stated a Subaru, driven by Gutti, was traveling west at a “high rate of speed and recklessly.” A 2015 Ford Focus, driven by Cynthia Ann Vega, was traveling east in the inside lane. A 2012 Volvo truck-tractor rig, towing a flatbed trailer, was traveling east in the outside lane behind the Ford.

Due to his high rate of speed, Gutti failed to negotiate a curve and his vehicle struck Vega's Ford, causing it to spin counterclockwise and crash into the tractor-trailer, flipping the Ford on its side. The impact killed the Vegas and seriously injured her boyfriend, Justino Rodriguez. Gutti was also seriously injured, but survived the crash.

According to the DPS, Gutti admitted to having been drinking the night before the crash and had a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of .175, more than twice the legal limit of 0.08.

There could have been another death just last week. A driver trying to evade motorcycle deputies was traveling at more than 100 miles per hour west on Texas 71 when he crashed into another vehicle at the intersection of Paleface Ranch Road. Amazingly, Jeremiah Ramirez, who was eventually charged with several outstanding warrants and additional fleeing and endangerment charges, was not killed in the crash, nor was the driver of the pickup he T-boned.

Three accidents. Five lives lost. In all cases, the accidents could have been avoided. Recklessness, driver inattention or speeding was a major factor in all three cases.

Perhaps now is the time the Texas Department of Public Safety and Texas Department of Transportation should study traffic on Texas 71 and determine what can be done to make this stretch of highway safer before more people are killed.

While they cannot stop every driver from making poor choices, they can determine if the road is safe at any speed or whether lowering the speed limit would help prevent further deaths.

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