Ohio’s new effort to combat wrong-way highway drivers might have prevented one recent area fatality, but it would not have saved the lives of three members of a Warren County family killed March 17 in Moraine.
The Ohio Department of Transportation announced on Tuesday a system to detect and deter wrong-way drivers. It came the same day bond was set at $3 million for a 21-year-old woman pleading not guilty to six counts of murder in a St. Patrick’s Day wrong-way triple fatal crash on Interstate 75.
The state’s unveiling comes weeks after a June wrong-way fatality on Interstate 675 in Beavercreek, the latest of at least 15 such deaths to occur on area interstates in recent years.
“We can only do so much,” ODOT Spokesman Matt Bruning told this news organization. “But the ultimate decision of what to do lies in the hands of the person holding the steering wheel.”
ODOT officials said the system — with 92 electronic signs and 82 detection devices — will begin along an 18-mile stretch of Interstate 71 in Hamilton County. When it is activated, LED lights around the edge of several “wrong way” and “do not enter” signs will begin to flash. An alert will also be sent to ODOT’s Traffic Management Center in Columbus.
“This is just another way to alert (drivers) that they’re going the wrong direction,” Bruning said. “It’s up to them to stop their car and turnaround or pull over.”
Authorities said Abby Marie Michaels, formerly of Xenia, turned around in a median and deliberately drove north in the southbound lanes March 17 on I-75, causing a wreck that killed husband and wife Timmy and Karen Thompson, and their 10-year-old daughter Tessa, all of Mason.
“This was not an accident,” Montgomery County Prosecutor Mat Heck has said. “This defendant was upset and decided to take the action that she did.”
The new wrong-way detection system, Bruning said, could have prevented a June 21 wrong-way wreck that killed Wright State student Paige Patrick, 23, on I-675.
Patrick’s car was struck by a car driven by 53-year-old Centerville resident Ronald Myer, who was traveling southbound in the northbound lanes on I-675, authorities said. The two vehicles collided around 9 p.m. south of the North Fairfield Road exit.
‘I’m going to drive backwards’
A statement from Michaels’ estranged husband on July 8 indicated she told him “I’m going to drive backwards on I-75” just minutes before the triple-fatal crash occurred, according to Moraine Police Division records.
Michaels also faces six counts of aggravated vehicular homicide and operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, all for which defense attorney Jay Adams on Tuesday entered not guilty pleas.
Blood-alcohol tests show Michaels was above the legal limit, but drunk driving was not a factor in the wreck, Heck has said.
It’s too early to know whether the defense will dispute Heck’s claim that Michaels deliberately drove the wrong way on I-75, Adams said.
“We don’t have all of the facts,” he said. “So I don’t know what we’ll be disputing. We’ll be doing what we can and be doing our best for her – what we can, whatever the facts and circumstances are.”
Michaels has been in jail since her arrest Thursday by Moraine police at a Washington Twp. alcohol and drug treatment facility, records show. She will remain there in lieu of a $3 million bond awaiting her next court date of July 31, Montgomery County Common Pleas Judge Richard Skelton said.
The bond is not a central focus at this time, Adams said.
“It wouldn’t matter at this point in time if it was $500,000 or $5 million or $50 million,” he said. “These folks can’t post $3 million. So, we’re going to focus on the case, we’re going to focus on the facts, and we’re not so much going to worry about the bond at this moment.”
Adams said Tuesday morning his firm was retained fewer than 24 hours before his client’s arraignment. He said most of the communication he has had regarding Michaels was through her parents, who are coping as best they can.
“It’s their daughter,” Adams said. “Of course anytime you’ve got a child in custody – whether it be a low-level case or something high profile” they’re deeply concerned. “It’s still their child. That’s still their baby. And it’s got to be very hard on anybody that has a child in custody…..it’s a very emotional situation for a lot of people on both sides.”
ODOT targets local counties
Greene, Hamilton and Montgomery counties are among the 17 targeted by ODOT. Over the past decade, those 17 counties have accounted for 82 percent of wrong-way crashes in Ohio, ODOT says.
According to state officials, while wrong-way crash made up less than 1 percent of all crashes in Ohio last year, they are 40 times more likely to be fatal.
ODOT records show a decline in wrong-way crashes since 2015, when there were 63 crashes resulting in eight deaths. From 2016 to 2018, an average of a little more than 27 wrong-way crashes resulted in an average of more than 16 deaths each year, according to the records.
“The efforts that we announced today really are focused on the highway ramps, because that’s where the vast majority of people get on the highway and start going the wrong direction,” Bruning said. “They enter from an exit ramp … that’s the way they get there.”
The system will be in use at 23 locations from downtown Cincinnati to Fields-Ertel Road.
So far this year, there have been seven fatal wrong-way crashes across the state, resulting in 12 deaths, according to ODOT.
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