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Published: Tuesday, 1/1/2008

Homicide behind the wheel

WHAT might have prevented the horrendous wrong-way crash that took the lives of at least five people on I-280 in North Toledo on Sunday night?

Tougher drunk-driving laws? Better road signage? Bar owners who aggressively try to keep blottoed patrons off the highways? More police enforcement around a holiday? As authorities investigate, these questions need answers.

If anything good can be said to emanate from anything so bad, it's the contemplative pause before drinking and driving that news of this tragedy may have given motorists in and around the city on New Year's Eve.

But this is not just another wrenchingly sad tale of the mayhem that drunken-driving too often produces. Coming as it did on the eve of an otherwise quiet holiday, the deadly crash morphed into a larger story to the world, unfortunately one datelined Toledo, Ohio.

Anytime a driver intoxicated at more than three times the legal limit gets behind the wheel and wreaks havoc, the public has a right to a full explanation of what happened and why.

In this case, the wrong-way driver, Michael Gagnon, 24, of Adrian, Mich., was said by authorities to have a blood-alcohol level of 0.254. He was charged with five counts of aggravated vehicular homicide, a crime so horrific that it cries out for consecutive prison terms.

Killed and injured were eight defenseless members of a Maryland family traveling home after a Christmas visit in southeast Michigan when their southbound minivan collided with Mr. Gagnon's pickup truck, which police said was traveling north in the southbound lanes.

How the pickup driver managed to get onto the expressway in the wrong direction can only be guessed at, and certainly cannot be excused. Whether better signage would have made a difference is questionable, given his alleged state of intoxication. Nevertheless, the Ohio Department of Transportation should consider how to make its "wrong way" signs more visible at freeway entrances.

Although their actions didn't prevent the crash, credit goes to the employees at the Taco Bell who promptly reported a drunken customer to police. A much more searching inquiry is due those at the Oregon bar where police said Mr. Gagnon had been drinking prior to the incident.

The effectiveness of drunken-driving laws is always questioned in the wake of crashes such as this, and they should be once again. Alcohol-related traffic deaths are up since 2003 in Ohio, and nationally alcohol-related crashes have increased annually since 1999, a trend that calls for a re-examination of whether tougher penalties might be a stronger deterrent.

A similar question arose in 2005 after police arrested a drunken motorist - a prominent Toledo businessman - who attempted to enter I-475 going the wrong way. His great fortune was that a cop was there to stop him.

Ohio has since toughened its drunk-driving laws, but the potential consequences evidently are not dire enough if this latest carnage is any indication.

A key problem is that state lawmakers have always been reticent about setting really strict penalties, preferring to treat homicide from behind the wheel as a moral failing rather than the criminal act it really is. The degree of intoxication now matters less than the number of offenses.

We hope the I-280 crash will change that feckless paradigm, and Ohio highways can be made safer for everyone.



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