Daniel Patricio and his wife, Juana Cintora, had been visiting family in the Farmington area. On Monday morning, the couple and three of their children headed to Albuquerque in their white minivan. There, Patricio and Cintora planned to pick up two more of their children from relatives, then head home to Texas.
But on a remote stretch of U.S. 550 about 135 miles from Albuquerque, a truck heading north crossed the road’s narrow median and slammed into the family’s minivan, killing Patricio and 5-year-old Ava and injuring Cintora and the other children, according to the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office.
The crash near Nageezi at about 11:20 a.m. Monday was strikingly similar to other family tragedies on what is one of New Mexico’s deadliest highways.
Collisions caused by trucks that crossed U.S. 550’s median killed a Nageezi woman and her son and daughter in 2014, a Texas couple and two children in 2014, and an Aztec couple and two children in 2017.
The crash Monday occurred in an area where the two southbound and two northbound lanes of the highway are separated by only a 6-foot-wide paved, flat median with rumble strips but no barriers to prevent vehicles from crossing into oncoming traffic. That is the case for most of the New Mexico stretch of U.S. 550, which runs from Bernalillo to the Colorado border.
The speed limit is 70 mph for most of the highway in New Mexico, and a vehicle traveling that fast can cross the median into oncoming traffic in a fraction of a second.
The truck driver in Monday’s crash told investigators that he had taken a drink of Gatorade while driving and had begun coughing, according to sheriff’s office spokeswoman Jayme Harcrow.
“He doesn’t remember anything after that,” Harcrow said. Alcohol or other substance abuse is not believed to have been a factor in the crash, she said.
A 2013 study for the state Department of Transportation proposed putting a concrete or cable barrier in the middle of U.S. 550 as one of several steps to reduce the number of collisions caused by vehicles crossing the median into oncoming traffic.
Transportation Secretary Tom Church said last year that a median barrier would improve safety on U.S. 550 but that funding for such projects is limited.
Patricio was 31. Cintora, 39, was hospitalized along with the couple’s 3-year-old son, Alec, and 4-month-old son, Adam. The family is from Garland, Texas, in the Dallas area.
The sheriff’s office identified the truck driver only as an Idaho man. The truck was pulling a 6-foot trailer, the office said. The truck driver was taken to San Juan Regional Medical Center and reported to be “OK” by the sheriff’s office.
Angela Young, CEO of the Urban Inter-Tribal Center of Texas, which is located in Dallas, said Cintora has worked in information technology for the center’s medical clinic for more than 10 years and that Patricio previously worked there. He recently had been working at a car dealership, she said.
The center assists American Indians in transitioning to large urban centers. Cintora is a member of the Navajo Nation and Patricio the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona.
“They were dedicated to their family and children,” Young said.
Cintora suffered rib and lung injuries and was hospitalized at San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington, she said. The children remained in critical condition in intensive care at University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque.
The 4-month-old boy suffered a brain injury but had made significant improvement and was taken off a ventilator, which assists with breathing, Young said.
The 4-year-old boy remained on a ventilator, she said. He underwent surgery Wednesday for a broken arm.
A gofundme.com page was created to help raise money for the family’s expenses.
The sheriff’s office said that immediately after the crash, passing motorists pulled victims from the wreckage and began CPR. The remote location of the collision meant emergency medical personnel were 30 minutes away, the office said.
The posting of the crash details on the Facebook page of the sheriff’s office generated more than 110 comments and set off a debate on whether to install a barrier in the median of U.S. 550.
“How many lives must we lose before some kind of barrier is placed in the medians? Ask our legislators,” one man wrote in commenting on the posting by the sheriff’s office.
But a woman responded:
“It boggles my mind how everyone says we need to overhaul this highway, put barriers. Has anyone considered it’s not the highway, it’s the driver behind the wheel? Speeding, falling asleep at the wheel, drugs, alcohol, not paying attention. Talking on the cellphone.”
Another woman wrote, “Obviously we can’t trust the drivers on this highway so people are asking for some kind of barriers to try and prevent some of the tragedies we have suffered.”
The New Mexican reported last year that from 2013 through 2015, much-busier Interstate 40 was the only major highway in New Mexico with more motorist and passenger deaths per road mile than the state’s stretch of U.S. 550. There were 10 more deaths on the road in 2016, according to the most recent federal statistics available.
The Department of Transportation has estimated it would cost $100 per foot for a concrete median barrier on U.S. 550, or $92.4 million for its entire length of 175 miles in New Mexico. The estimated cost of a cable barrier is $17 per foot, or $15.7 million.
Severe traffic accidents also cost millions of dollars.
The average economic cost to society for each traffic fatality is $1.4 million, and the average cost of each critically injured survivor is $1 million, according to a 2010 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The costs include medical and legal expenses and lost work productivity.
Church, the transportation secretary, has said any placement of a median barrier on U.S. 550 would begin in areas of high crash rates.
Most fatal crashes on the highway from 2013 through 2015 occurred between Cuba and Bloomfield. It’s an area of desert rangeland, mesas, and oil and gas wells. U.S. 550 crosses the Continental Divide at an elevation of 7,380 feet on that stretch, and weather conditions can change quickly.
Church last year said a barrier would help improve safety, but the solution is for motorists to slow down and not drink and drive. The New Mexican analysis of fatal crashes on U.S. 550 from 2002-15 found excessive speed for road conditions and drunken driving were major contributing causes.
A Department of Transportation spokeswoman didn’t respond to an email this week about whether there had been further consideration of a median barrier on U.S. 550 since Church’s comments.
The narrow median on the highway is the result of cost-cutting when the two-lane N.M. 44, also a notoriously deadly road, was reconstructed, widened and renamed U.S. 550. The project was completed in 2001.