Fatal wrong-way crashes increasing in Ohio

RELATED: Driver in fiery I-75 wrong-way crash had drugs in his system

Original story April 2016:

Statewide, there’s been a spike in wrong-way highway crashes with more deaths so far in 2016 than all of 2014, according to the Ohio Department of Transportation.

Alcohol impairment is the main culprit, but health and safety officials are concerned by the number of recent incidents that looked intentional.

On Feb. 12, James Pohlabeln struck head-on a sports utility vehicle on Interstate 75 in Dayton. He killed himself; Kyle Canter and Earl Miller II, both of New Carlisle; Vashti Nicole Brown of Dayton; and Devin Bachmann of Huber Heights.

Pohlabeln reportedly had threatened suicide in the past and made statements at a bar about harming himself the night of the crash.

“It broke my heart,” said Justin Neace, a friend of the bandmates who were killed. “They were good people to know.”

As Neace grieves, he wonders what he would do if a wrong-way driver came at him.

“That guy … I’ve heard a lot that he was basically on a suicide mission,” Neace said.

Two wrong-way fatal crashes in Ohio occurred Friday. A crash on Interstate 75 near Cincinnati killed three and shut down the highway. Officers were dispatched to the scene around 3:30 a.m., only a minute after reports of a wrong-way driver in the area, WCPO-TV reported.

Also early Friday, a Marysville woman was killed in a wrong-way crash on I-270 in Columbus.

Clark County Combined Health Department spokeswoman Anita Biles attended the recent Lifesavers traffic safety conference in California. Wrong-way driving, including suicides, was discussed.

“There’s a basic understanding that this is going on across the country,” she said. But beyond improving signs or installing sensors, there isn’t a lot of encouraging progress. “We all kind of left a little frustrated.”

Crashes increase

In Ohio, 553 wrong-way or wrong-side crashes occurred in 2015, according to Department of Public Safety data. That’s up from 467 in 2014 and 446 in 2013.

Wrong-way crashes on interstates are the deadliest. In 2014, Ohio saw 47 such crashes with seven fatalities, according to ODOT. Comparable numbers for 2015 weren’t available, but so far in 2016, the state has seen 12 wrong-way highway crashes with 16 fatalities and nine injuries, including Friday’s crashes.

In 2013, a Kettering man died in a wrong-way crash on Interstate 70 in Clark County that closed a portion of the highway for more than three hours. Francois Hagenimana, 24, of Kettering, was traveling westbound on Interstate 70 in an eastbound lane when he collided with Jason Fricke, 28, of Westerville, who also died at the scene.

Hagenimana, an assistant football coach at Centerville High School, his alma mater, had played for Ashland University. The Ohio State Highway Patrol said Hagenimana drove for about 10 miles in the wrong direction on I-70. At least seven people called 911 to report a car going the wrong way on I-70 with its brights on, traveling an estimated 75 mph.

In July 2014, Rachel Schidecker, 20, of Laura in Miami County, was sentenced to three years in prison for six counts related to driving drunk in the wrong direction on I-75, causing a fatal chain-reaction crash. The 2012 wreck happened after she drove four miles in the wrong direction. It caused the death of 39-year-old Chereece Rule of Kansas City and serious injuries to Rule’s friend, David Wilson.

In October 2014, motorcyclist Kenneth D. Dawson, 55, of Fairborn, died after he hit an automobile while going in the wrong direction on I-675. Dawson was launched from his motorcycle and landed in the westbound lanes of I-70 below an overpass.

Lt. Brian Aller of the Ohio State Patrol Springfield Post has overseen two investigations on I-70 in Clark County in the past 12 months in which drivers died after traveling the wrong way and colliding with semi-trucks. One of those crashes was ruled a suicide and the other remains under investigation.

“When you want to include someone else who has nothing to do with your problems or your life and basically scar them for life, I just, I think that’s wrong,” he said.

Mental health professionals are concerned about these deaths as well, which come amid an upward trend in all suicides.

Anyone experiencing emotional upset shouldn’t drive, said Curt Gillespie, director of Mental Health Services for Clark County, because it could escalate into a dangerous situation.

“Deal with your crisis before you get behind the wheel a car,” he said.

‘I tried to swerve’

When 35-year-old Christopher Coleman of Xenia died in a fiery wrong-way crash on I-70 in Enon last April, traffic safety experts said that crash was an anomaly because he intentionally drove head-on into a tractor trailer.

Most wrong-way crashes on the interstate are the result of drunk or confused drivers getting on exits the wrong way, data shows, and motor vehicle deaths accounted for just 0.4 percent of all U.S. suicides in 2014.

Clark County had 22 suicide deaths in 2015 and Coleman’s was the only one using a motor vehicle.

But there have been three possibly intentional crashes on I-70 and I-75 in the past two months resulting in seven deaths, including the crash in Dayton.

Other fatal wrong-way crashes this year:

• On March 10, Christy Lakins of New Carlisle died after driving eastbound on I-70 near Ohio 41 at about 5 a.m. and crashing into a semi-tractor trailer. An investigation is ongoing, but the initial facts indicated it may have been intentional.

Truck driver Milo Hatfield of Indianapolis and his wife were uninjured, but he’s so affected that he can’t talk too much about it.

“I tried to swerve and give her a way to go,” he said. “I was hoping she would do that.”

Instead, witnesses reported that Lakins adjusted in the same direction.

“The impact was so dynamic,” Hatfield said. “It was just an instant feeling that, you know, whoever is in that car wasn’t going to make it.”

He believes if he hadn’t been hauling a full load, he and his wife could have been injured.

On the 911 call, Hatfield sounded shaken as he tried to comfort Lakins.

“She was moving when I first got to her but I don’t think she’s going to make it,” he said to the dispatcher. Then to Lakins he said, “Just hold on. Don’t go nowhere. Just hold on.”

• On March 28, Wallace Ratliff of Springfield is suspected to have killed himself by driving the wrong way on I-70 in Madison County. He was seen by witnesses running into the eastbound lanes before re-entering his vehicle and driving the wrong way on the westbound side. Within seconds he drove into a concrete pillar under U.S. 42.

A trooper at the scene said it appeared Ratliff never braked.

“It looks like it was intentional, based on what happened,” Aller said.

Authorities aren’t sure if any of these crashes, if intentional, could be “copycat” suicides. But they said it’s possible that news coverage could influence someone.

“Somebody who’s not real stable could choose that because of the sensationalism,” Clark County Coroner Richard Marsh said.

‘What do you do?’

Studies by the National Transportation Safety Board and state patrols have found that wrong-way driving remains rare.

More than half the drivers were under the influence of alcohol or drugs and drivers older than 70 are over-represented. The majority of the crashes happen at night on interstates and tend to take place in the passing lane closest to the median.

Although they represent a tiny fraction of total crashes — 0.1 percent of Ohio crashes in 2015 — wrong-way collisions on highways are 100 times more deadly, consistently accounting for about 1 percent of traffic fatalities statewide.

And the number of wrong-way crashes is on the rise while total U.S. traffic deaths have fallen.

“I’m sure that it’s happened through the years, but it seems to be an accelerating trend,” said ODOT director Jerry Wray.

Ohio has for years worked with SpeedInfo Inc., a company developing sensors to detect wrong-way drivers. But a pilot program that could have been used in Dayton remains on hold because the technology isn’t reliable enough, ODOT said.

“All we can do, and what we are doing, is trying to improve our signage, make sure there is plenty of warning,” said Wray.

That includes more and better-placed “Do Not Enter” and “Wrong Way” signs.

Several states represented at the California conference presented on warning systems they are trying. Rhode Island is spending $2 million to upgrade signs at 200-plus ramps and install a detection system at 24 high-risk locations. The detection system will notify state police and trigger displays on overhead message signs to warn drivers.

Detecting and stopping a wrong-way driver is extremely challenging, Aller said. The recent local crashes occurred within 10-to-15 seconds of the driver entering the interstate.

“Even we can’t prevent some of those crashes,” he said.

A state trooper was posted along I-70 westbound in Madison County on the night of March 28 and saw Ratliff’s car traveling the wrong way. The trooper didn’t have time to react.

“It was seconds,” Aller said. “It’s something like the worst-case scenario of a crash — you have a car coming at you, you have two cars beside you. What do you do? Where do you go?”

Signs of suicide risk

Some behaviors may indicate that a person is at immediate risk for suicide. The following three should prompt a call to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or a mental health professional.

• Talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself.

• Looking for a way to kill oneself, such as searching online or obtaining a gun.

• Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.

Other behaviors may also indicate a serious risk:

• Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.

• Talking about being a burden to others.

• Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.

• Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly.

• Sleeping too little or too much.

• Withdrawing or feeling isolated.

• Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.

• Displaying extreme mood swings.

Source: Suicide Prevention Resource Center

Wrong-way crashes/By the Numbers

553 Wrong-way or wrong-side crashes on Ohio roadways in 2015.

16 People killed in wrong-way crashes on Ohio interstates so far in 2016.

1,930 Transportation-related suicide deaths in the U.S. since 2000.

177 Suicides using motor vehicles in the U.S. in 2014.

Continuing coverage

This newspaper is committed to covering transportation and public safety issues, including analyzing trends on our highways like wrong way crashes and efforts to prevent them.

Four times in the past year someone has driven the wrong way on a local highway in what investigators suspect could be a string of suicides, not only killing themselves but also endangering or killing others.

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