While traffic fatalities can and do occur all over the state, the path of U.S. Highway 281 within the confines of Erath County has been the location of a number of gut-wrenching tragedies.

One of the more horrific examples occurred on April 28, 2013, when four people died at the scene of a two-vehicle crash on 281 in Erath.

The Empire-Tribune’s account of the tragedy noted that two Tarleton State University students, ages 18 and 19, were killed along with a former student and his wife. The oldest of the victims was just 29. The youngest was an 18-year-old Lipan woman who was a freshman at TSU.

The driver of a Volkswagen involved reportedly lost control, overcorrected and then veered into oncoming traffic. It crashed head-on into a Mercedes. The impact left the mangled Volkswagen standing upright in the middle of the twisted wreckage near the crushed Mercedes.

The E-T article reporting on the crash stated, “Witnesses said it was the worst thing they have ever witnessed.”

TSU President Dominic Dottavio expressed this as part of a news release to address the grief felt by the university: “The loss of ones so young and so filled with promise and vitality leaves a profound wound on all of us at Tarleton.”

That was one of five fatal crashes on Highway 281 in Erath County in 2013, according to statistics from the Texas Department of Transportation’s website.

There were three fatal crashes on 281 within Erath County in 2014, followed by five in 2015 and six in 2016. Fortunately, there were no fatalities recorded on 281 within Erath County in 2017. Three fatalities were recorded on 281 in 2018.

As a comparison, there were only four fatalities on Highway 377 within Erath County for the same 2014-2018 time span, while there were 14 on U.S. Highway 67 within Erath County for those five years.

CHILD VICTIMS

On Dec. 6, 2018, an unfathomable nightmare occurred on Highway 281 in Erath County that broke the hearts of area residents.

Two young sisters — 5-year-old Morgan Mill kindergarten student Codie Sackett and 9-month-old Charli Sackett — died as a result of a two-vehicle collision north of Morgan Mill. Their mother, Carrie Sackett, was listed in stable condition and received treatment for her injuries at a Fort Worth hospital.

The other vehicle’s driver, Alyssa Litwin, survived and was indicted on June 12 on two counts of manslaughter, four counts of endangering a child and one count of tampering with evidence in connection with the crash. Investigators stated that Litwin was accused of using Facebook while driving, leading to her vehicle rear-ending the one Carrie Sackett was driving.

MANY PROBLEM AREAS

While there have been many other examples over the years, of course Highway 281 in Erath County does not have a monopoly on crashes resulting in deaths or serious injuries.

Department of Public Safety Sgt. Dub Gillum cited other problem areas in the region, including highways 37, 67, Interstate 20 in Parker County, plus Johnson County trouble spots that include SH 171 through Cresson into Johnson County, FM 917 and Interstate 35.

“In all areas of the state there are roadways which see their share of crashes,” Gillum stated in an email. “The roadways are no more dangerous today (than) they were years ago. The population is growing. There are more vehicles on the road, and we can’t expand or add the highways we need to keep up with the growth.

“Texas is the fastest growing state in the nation. The DFW area and all to the west, where we are, is rapidly growing. Traffic counts are exploding.”

One common cause of many serious crashes is speeding — just as it always has been. That not only includes driving at high speeds beyond the posted limit, but also going faster than the current conditions should dictate.

“Speed kills,” Gillum stated. “Speed is almost always a factor in crashes (speeding over the limit, unsafe speed and failure to control speed), especially on wet roads and at night.

“Slow down and take your time. So many motorists push the limit, and on wet roads that can lead to more crashes. Motorists see so much more when they slow down and their reaction time increases as well.”

DISTRACTIONS

Gillum pointed to distracted driving as being a crash factor that has gotten progressively worse over the past few years.

“The cell phone and other electronic devices are contributing to more crashes. Distracted driving is on the rise,” Gillum stated.

His reminder on that point is for drivers to “just drive” — resisting the urge to become distracted by anything while behind the wheel.

“If you are not concentrating 100 percent on your driving skills and abilities, you are setting yourself up for a crash,” Gillum said. “Education will always be our first line of defense. Knowing the risks of driving and what your vehicle is capable of and not capable of is paramount, as well as the driver’s condition and capability.”

Gillum also reminded drivers never to drink and drive, and to avoid driving while they are fatigued.

Another risk factor is that this part of the state also has no shortage of farm tractors and other slow-moving vehicles pulling trailers that can present hazards for those who may be driving as fast as 75 mph — or higher in some cases due to speeding.

Under Texas law, farm tractors with a maximum speed of 25 mph must display a “slow-moving vehicle” (SMV) emblem on the rear of the tractor. If towing a trailer or other equipment that blocks the view of the SMV emblem, another SMV emblem must be placed on the rear of the equipment being towed.

SOCIAL MEDIA DEBACLE

Dan Malone, an assistant professor who has taught journalism at Tarleton for 13 years, related an incident that he recalled “blew up” on social media just last semester.

Malone said that a young woman who was driving on a highway not far from Stephenville decided to post a stunningly outrageous online “selfie” photo — depicting herself while both consuming alcohol and speeding.

“What I know is that I had several students over the years do stories about accidents and the number of accidents,” Malone said. “I’m somebody who has driven on 281 a lot, and it seems to be a lot better since they finished the construction (north of Stephenville).”

ANOTHER LIFE LOST

Just beyond Erath County’s northern edge, the promising life of 20-year-old Lipan-area resident Jace Hollingsworth was tragically lost on May 30 of this year.

Hollingsworth was driving north on 281 from his home to nearby Natty Flat Smokehouse, where he had worked for about two months. As his Toyota Corolla approached the intersection of Highway 4 with a flashing yellow light, a large septic work truck reportedly ran through the flashing red light on the west-to-east side, taking the life of Hollingsworth.

Not long before that day, Hollingsworth had decided he wanted to take an honorable new chapter in serving his country.

Kolen White, area manager for Natty Flat Smokehouse, said he got a call from work that day saying that Hollingsworth had not shown up. He knew that was not at all like him, and later when he saw the crash site — what he described as a “mangled mess” — he said his “gut feeling” was that something terrible might have happened.

“Any time it’s somebody young and they’ve got their whole life ahead, it’s always hard,” said White. “Especially with a young kid who’s got a lot going for them.

“With Jace, it was just really bad luck. He had just signed up with the Air Force and he was going to ship out in August.

“We were all shocked at first. Pretty heartbroken.”

Hollingsworth had four siblings, including a younger brother who is also employed at Natty Flat. His parents had relocated to the Lipan area from Roanoke.

White said that in his eight years working at Natty Flat, “I’ve seen about 10 wrecks and about five were fatalities. Two of them were directly in front of our business. It’s claimed a lot of lives at that intersection.”

He noted that the speed limit south of the Highway 4 intersection is 70, but it increases to 75 for traffic heading north from that spot toward Interstate 20 on the way to Mineral Wells.

IMPROVEMENTS

White noted that several improvements were made around that intersection on 281 with Highway 4, and beyond that spot. 

“They widened it and repaved it from Stephenville to north of I-20,” White said, also pointing to restriping and adding a turn lane at the intersection. “I’ve seen less accidents. I really have.”