Wrong-way crashes often deadly, hard to prevent

Clark County had the third highest rate of wrong-way crashes in Ohio last year, part of a statewide increase in these rare but deadly collisions.

The 22 crashes that occurred from wrong-way driving here over the past two years make up a small fraction of total accidents. But wrong-way crashes on Ohio highways are 100 times more deadly than other types of collisions, consistently accounting for about 1 percent of traffic fatalities statewide.

“It doesn’t happen that often, but when it does it’s usually serious, if not fatal,” Lt. Brian Aller of the Ohio State Patrol’s Springfield post.

Four people have died in this type of violent crash in Clark County since late 2013, after at least two years without any wrong-way fatalities.

There have been two deadly wrong-way collisions within a 40-mile stretch of Interstate 70 in the past month.

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One in Madison County killed a 32-year-old Columbus woman. An April 14 crash near Enon killed 35-year-old Chris A. Coleman of Xenia. State patrol troopers suspect he may have intentionally driven head-on into a semi.

Several major highways intersecting the county — I-70, U.S. 68 and I-675 — could account for an increased risk of wrong-way crashes, troopers said. But it’s not entirely clear why Clark County has more incidents per 100,000 people than similar-sized areas with multiple interstates, like Allen, Miami or Richland counties.

Extensive construction projects on I-70 might have been one cause, Clark County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Doyle Wright said.

“For the longest time it was nothing but barrels,” he said. “If you don’t travel that every day it can be confusing.”

But solutions are hard to come by, safety and law enforcement experts said.

“Stopping it before a tragedy occurs, that’s a tall order,” said Doug Finlay, CEO of SpeedInfo, a travel information systems company that’s developing sensors to detect wrong-way drivers.

100 times more deadly

Numerous agencies tracking wrong-way crashes in Ohio show an increase in the number of incidents in recent years, but officials say some of that is due to improvements in reporting. Previously the state patrol had no specific crash report category for wrong-way collisions. It was added in 2012, but not uniformly used until 2013.

Since then, Ohio saw an increase from 446 wrong-way or wrong-side crashes in 2013 to 467 last year. Clark County went from nine crashes in 2013 to 13 last year.

Champaign County had just one such crash both years.

Multiple studies by the National Transportation Safety Board and state patrols have found the same trends when it comes to wrong-way drivers. More than half of the drivers are under the influence of alcohol or drugs and the majority of the crashes happen at night on interstates. The majority of Ohio crashes on divided highways occur in rural areas, according to ODOT.

About 2.4 percent of the wrong-way crashes in Ohio over the past two years resulted in fatalities. That’s much higher than Ohio’s fatality rate for all types of crashes, which was about 1.3 percent for the same years, according to Ohio Department of Public Safety data.

But the fatality rate is much higher when looking at just crashes on divided highways, removing wrong-way crashes that happen on one-way city streets where speeds are lower.

A 2013 Ohio state patrol study examined 60 wrong-way crashes on highways from January 2011 to April 2013 and found that 37 percent of them were fatal. Only 0.35 percent of all Ohio highway crashes were fatal during that same time period, making wrong-way crashes 100 times more deadly than all other types of crashes combined.

The reason is often simple physics.

“Consider that two vehicles moving toward one another at 65 mph have a combined speed of 130 mph, resulting in a very high force of impact should they meet head-on,” the 2013 study by the state patrol said.

Numerous local crashes

Southwest Ohio has experienced numerous devastating wrong-way collisions interstates in recent years.

  • Rebecca Arrowood, 28, of New Lebanon, was killed on her way to work in May 2010 when a woman driving the wrong way on the ramp from southbound I-75 to northbound I-675 collided with her vehicle head-on. The other driver, Michelle Sharp, 38, of Cincinnati, was also killed. Sharp was driving with an unsealed bottle of vodka in her car, according to troopers.
  • In August 2012, Rachel Schidecker, then 18, drove the wrong way up I-75 north of Dayton for nearly four miles and hit a Chevrolet Blazer, sending it into a tractor-trailer, where it was dragged before bursting into flames. Driver David Wilson suffered life-changing injuries and his passenger Chereece Rule died. She had come from Missouri to drop off her son, Skip, a Central State basketball player. Schidecker had a blood-alcohol level nearly four times the legal driving limit and was sentenced to three years in prison. Skip Adams-Rule told reporters last year that he struggles daily with his mother’s death. “I pray every day that God gives me the strength and wisdom to deal with all this,” he said.
  • Francois Hagenimana, a 24-year-old native of Rwanda and assistant coach for the Centerville High School football team, was killed along with 28-year-old Wright State University graduate Jason Fricke, of Westerville, in a September 2013 collision on I-70 in Clark County. Hagenimana drove for about 10 miles in the wrong direction before colliding with Fricke’s car.
  • In October, motorcyclist Kenneth D. Dawson, 55, of Fairborn, died after he hit a car while going in the wrong direction on the I-675 bridge over I-70 in Clark County . Dawson was launched from his motorcycle and landed in the westbound lanes of I-70 below. The other driver wasn’t injured and reported seeing Dawson swerving from side to side like he didn’t know where to go in the construction zone before the accident.
  • Maribel Pablo Mijangos, 32, of Columbus, was killed March 24 when the van she was riding in was struck head-on by a wrong-way driver on eastbound I-70 in Madison County. The van flipped on impact, injuring two other adults and three children. Mattison Skoog, 24, of Columbus, told investigators she had no memory of the crash and her blood alcohol level was 0.19 percent, according to the Columbus Dispatch. Skoog has been charged with aggravated vehicular homicide and is in the Tri-County Regional Jail.
  • On April 14, Chris Coleman passed through an emergency U-turn drive to the oncoming lanes of I-70 near the 48 mile marker in Clark County. He drove the wrong way on the shoulder before veering into the path of an oncoming tractor-trailer, according to witnesses. Coleman’s Mazda exploded on impact and he died at the scene. The semi driver escaped without injury. The crash remains under investigation and troopers are considering the possibility that Coleman committed suicide.

 

What can be done?

Studies on wrong-way crashes recommend increased efforts to curb drunken driving as key to stopping these deadly collisions, along with increased education for elderly drivers and caretakers.

Some recent tragedies have involved drivers who investigators suspect simply became confused and ended up in the wrong lanes.

On March 2, 2012, three sorority sisters from Bowling Green State University, including Greenon High School graduate Sarah Hammond, were killed when their car was struck head-on by 69-year-old Winifred Lein on I-75 northbound in Wood County.

Lein’s brother told the Toledo Blade his sister must have gotten confused when she entered the highway the wrong direction.

“When you get to this age — and I’m a little older than she was — you have to be very careful when you’re driving anymore,” Ron Merrill said. “You don’t have the reflexes. You do get disoriented.”

Recommendations have also been made about additional traffic-control devices that can minimize wrong-way driving, especially on highway entrance and exit ramps.

The Ohio Department of Transportation constantly monitors traffic data to identify any patterns or hot spots for wrong-way entrances to highways, spokesman Matt Bruning said.

“The problem is there are about 5,000 ramps around the state, and there is no trend that is showing up. It’s so random. There’s just not a smoking gun, like this intersection is always a problem so let’s fix it,” he said.

In 2006 the state noticed a rash of wrong-way drivers on highways in downtown Columbus. So signs were added on both sides of exit ramps, including some at lower heights because drunk or impaired drivers might be gazing lower than normal drivers.

A slight drop in the number of incidents has occurred there, Bruning said, but because reporting standards have also changed, it’s hard to say if the new signs have had a significant impact.

“All the things we could do, adding more signs, flashing lights, put LEDs in the ramp or something … If they’re not noticing an 18-wheeler coming at them at 70 mph on the interstate, are they going to notice an extra wrong way sign?” he said. “But if that extra wrong way sign stops one person from going the wrong way down the ramp, then it was worth every dime we spent to do it.”

Pilot program

Ohio had planned to pilot a program with SpeedInfo to test whether its current highway sensors along I-70 could detect wrong-way drivers and alert law enforcement.

But the test has been delayed as the technology isn’t yet as accurate as the company wants it.

The current sensors, which are placed on light poles about every mile along I-70 in Clark County, can detect that a car is travelling east at 66 mph, CEO Doug Finlay said, but cannot tell if that car is in the eastbound or westbound lanes.

“We’re not confident that we can do it with a high degree of accuracy,” he said.

And one missed car could lead to a fatality, Finlay said, and false alarms could deter law enforcement from trusting the sensors.

Other solutions that have been discussed among highway safety experts include placing sensors at exit ramps, which would provide early detection, Finlay said, but be very costly to install.

Other states have implemented ramp design changes that make it difficult for drivers to get on a ramp the wrong way.

“But that requires essentially rebuilding interchanges, and that’s not cheap either. The other thing that people have talked about is putting those strips that essentially flatten your tires if you’re going the wrong way,” Finlay said.

That could present safety hazards by causing a driver to lose control, and presents other obstacles as emergency and construction crews frequently go the wrong way on ramps to reach crash scenes or work zones.

Sensors could be helpful, state trooper Aller said. But the public already does a great job of reporting wrong-way drivers.

“We generally know within seconds (where) a wrong-way driver is with the magic of cell phones,” Aller said.

Intercepting them is the hard part, he said.

“We try to use methods … like slowing traffic down or stopping it completely if the wrong-way driver is heading that way,” he said. “In extreme circumstances we are allowed to use intentional contact to stop the wrong-way driver, but as a last resort.”

Drivers encountering someone going the wrong way should slow down and move over, Aller said, then call 9-1-1 if it’s safe to do so.

Bruning had a personal encounter years ago with a wrong-way driver on U.S. 23, he said.

“You don’t know what to do … It’s almost like your brain takes a minute to process,” he said.

Ultimately the focus has to be on keeping impaired or disorientated drivers off the road, said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

“If we could make more progress on reducing alcohol-impaired driving, it would help reduce the incidence of wrong-way crashes,” Rader said.

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