Wrong-way crashes rare in Ohio

Older or impaired drivers cause of majority of wrecks

Wrong-way crashes on highways are rare, but two factors in the most recent incident that killed a family of three on Interstate 75 make the crash even more unusual.

Friends and family will gather in Mason this week to remember Tim and Karen Thompson, ages 51 and 50, and their 10-year-old daughter Tessa, who were killed when their vehicle was struck by another vehicle traveling the wrong way on I-75 near Moraine on St. Patrick’s Day.

RELATED: Police investigate wrong-way triple-fatal crash as vehicular homicide

The suspected at-fault driver, 21-year-old Abby Michaels, of Xenia, was traveling north when she entered the southbound lanes from an emergency crossover in the median, according to Moraine police.

Most wrong-way crashes are caused by male drivers and involve either an older or impaired driver, according to a 2018 study by the Ohio Department of Transportation.

The ODOT analysis looked wrong-way crashes since 2005 and determined a majority of the 597 wrong way crashes on Ohio roadways were male drivers. Just more than 20 percent of the crashes studied involved a fatality.

And while statistics were unavailable on how the wrong-way drivers entered the highway, those who use an emergency turnaround or crossover in the median are “extremely rare,” according to ODOT spokesman Matt Bruning.

“Wrong way crashes are relatively rare, but it’s even more rare when someone uses a crossover,” Bruning said, citing that annually less than 1 percent of all crashes involve wrong-way drivers.

Several factors

When wrong-way crashes happen on Ohio roadways, ODOT looks at several factors, including where the driver entered the highway to determine if extra signage or other measures are needed to prevent another incident. In some instances, extra wrong-way signs have been installed at exit ramps. Cable barriers are installed to prevent out-of-control vehicles from crossing over the median, but there are no practical measures from preventing someone using a paved emergency crossover, Bruning said.

“We can do all we can to prevent and reduce the risk of wrong-way crashes, but at the end of the day, it’s the decision by someone to get behind the wheel while impaired that blows that out of the water,” he said.

In 2018, ODOT made pavement markers and a second set of lower, wrong-way signs mandatory for interstate off-ramps in 17 counties, including Montgomery County and in Greene County, where new directional arrows have already been painted on exit ramps to alert motorists if they are headed the wrong way.

Ohio reported about 300,000 total crashes in 2017, the most recent data available. Of those, just 25 or .01 percent were wrong-way. But of the 1,180 fatalities in 2017, wrong-way crashes accounted for 16, or 1.4 percent, of the fatalities.

Bruning said the 17 counties getting the stepped-up efforts were selected after an analysis of the past decade’s crash data and other factors, including proximity to drinking establishments.

“They represent over 80 percent of the wrong-way crashes that we’ve had in the state of Ohio,” Brning previously told the Dayton Daily News.

Drivers going the wrong direction are not always impaired by alcohol or drugs, but disoriented, said Lt. Matt Schmenk, the Ohio State Highway Patrol’s Xenia Post commander.

“We occasionally get calls of a motorist getting on the interstate in the wrong direction,” he said. “Sometimes it might be an elderly driver … Sometimes where the on-ramp and off-ramp come off together they get confused on that. More signage in that area always helps.”

Schmenk said a directional arrow has been placed on the U.S. 35 exit ramp at U.S. 68. It’s impossible to prevent all wrong-way driving, but the new measures should lower the possibilities, Schmenk said.

“There’s always going to be a driver that gets a little bit confused. But the fact that ODOT is placing better signs is always helpful,” he said. “We are trying to make it safe for everybody.”

Police have reported that Michaels was apparently out celebrating St. Patrick’s Day prior to the crash, and when medics tried to revive her at the scene, beer frothed out of her mouth.

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Michaels has not been charged, and she was listed in serious but stable condition earlier this week at Miami Valley Hospital, according to police. Police said they are awaiting toxicology results and working to reconstruct the crash before taking the case to the Montgomery County Prosecutor’s Office.

Authorities said the Thompsons were traveling home after visiting family in northern Ohio, but police are working to learn where Michaels was traveling to or where she had been that evening. It’s also not clear why she used the crossover and continued northbound in the southbound lanes.

A witness reported seeing Michaels’ vehicle use the median crossover and pull into oncoming traffic before hitting Thompsons’ vehicle within seconds, according to the police report.

Court records show Michaels’ husband, Kyle Pastorelle, filed for divorce just two days prior to the incident. The couple married in June 2018.

Pastorelle’s lawyer, Karl Kordalis, declined to comment at this time about the incident.

Other dangerous crashes

In October 2017, the Montgomery County coroner ruled that Melvin Bonie, 69, of Beavercreek, had more than twice the legal limit of alcohol in his system when he headed the wrong way on Interstate 675 from Ohio 48, killing himself and taking the life of Kalip Grimm, a 2017 Miamisburg High School graduate less than a week away from his 19th birthday.

And alcohol may also have factored into one of the region’s deadliest wrong-way crashes. James Pohlabeln, a 61-year-old retiree, had been released from jail just 33 hours earlier in connection with a separate 2016 suspected drunken driving crash when he crashed again – this time head-on into an SUV while driving the wrong way on Interstate 75 through downtown Dayton.

Pohlabeln died, as did four in the SUV: Kyle Canter , Earl Miller II , Vashti Nicole Brown and Devin Bachmann. Bachmann, Canter and Miller were members of the Dayton rock band CounterFlux.

Pohlabeln’s blood-alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit, according to the Montgomery County Coroner’s screening.

Family funeral

Visitation for the Thompsons is planned from 4 to 8 p.m. Monday at St. Susanna Catholic Church, 616 Reading Road, Mason. A mass of Christian burial is planned at 11 a.m. the following day at the church. A second memorial mass will be held in Maumee, Ohio, at a future date, according to the Mueller Funeral Home.

"Tim, Karen, and Tessa Thompson were three shining lights in the universe of those who loved them. Because they shared their love and laughter widely, their loss is deeply felt by many," reads the family's obituary.

Tim L. Thompson was an avid sports enthusiast who worked as the vice president of sales and marketing at Tape Products Company in Cincinnati, according to the obituary.

Karen Thompson “taught with a combination of tough love and compassion” as a special education teacher for Cincinnati Public Schools, according to the obituary.

Tessa Thompson was “wildly creative and fiercely independent, making a vibrant impression on everyone she met,” according to the obituary.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the St. Susanna Catholic School, where Tessa was a student.

Reporter Chris Stewart contributed to this story.


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