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Published: Wednesday, 7/24/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

‘CROSS COUNTRY CRACKDOWN’

More police aim to make I-80 safer

Effort affects 11 states, most of Ohio Turnpike

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Crews work on an overturned semi truck on the I-280 exit ramp to the east bound lanes of the Ohio Turnpike. Crews work on an overturned semi truck on the I-280 exit ramp to the east bound lanes of the Ohio Turnpike.
THE BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge | Buy This Photo

The Ohio Turnpike, already reputed to be one of the more heavily patrolled highways anywhere, is going to be even tougher for the next eight days.

Troopers from neighboring Ohio Highway Patrol posts that typically do not work the toll road will provide reinforcements for the rest of July, starting today, as Ohio participates in the I-80 “Cross Country Crackdown,” a multistate safety and awareness campaign timed for the height of midsummer travel.

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The goal of the 11 states involved: zero fatalities on I-80, coast to coast, for the next eight days.

“Our goal for the week is a fatal-free week,” said Lt. Brett Gockstetter, commander of the state patrol’s Milan post, which covers the toll road’s middle 80 miles between Elmore and Berea. “We’d like to have that all the time, of course, but we’re going to put more effort into it.”

I-80 runs for 2,903 miles from the I-95 junction near Ridgefield Park, N.J., to U.S. 101 in San Francisco. The “Cross Country Crackdown,” using the slogan “More Cops, More Stops,” was conceived by the Iowa Department of Public Safety after crash data showed summer to be the deadliest season on I-80 there.

Ohio Highway Patrol data show a similar summer spike in fatal crashes — perhaps unsurprising, as that is also the time when traffic is heaviest.

Since 2008, 31 fatal crashes and 2,492 injury-only crashes have occurred on I-80 in Ohio, out of 13,550 total traffic crashes.

Last year’s numbers were by far the lowest during that period: 1,301 crashes, with 237 involving injuries and just one fatality.

“It’s one of the safest roads in Ohio, per mile,” said Sgt. Robert Sellers at the patrol’s Swanton post.

Most of I-80’s run across Ohio, 237.5 miles, is on the Ohio Turnpike, but the easternmost 19 miles are a freeway crossing Youngstown’s northern outskirts after I-80 trades places on the turnpike with I-76 northwest of that city.

The crackdown will focus on speeding, unsafe lane changes, tailgating, and drunken driving.

Sergeant Sellers said troopers from the Defiance post will assist in Williams County, troopers from the Toledo post will assist in Fulton and Lucas counties, and troopers from the Bowling Green post will assist in the Wood County section of the turnpike.

“They’re all contributing people to work in their areas on I-80,” the sergeant said.

To the extent Ohio law allows, seat-belt use also will be enforced; in Ohio, motorists may not be pulled over for failing to wear seat belts, but can be cited if they’re pulled over for another reason. 

But Lieutenant Gockstetter said seat-belt use tends to be higher on the turnpike than other Ohio roads, perhaps because of the higher speeds and longer-distance travel. 

A patrol survey last week showed 94 percent of toll-road travelers wore seat belts, while statewide surveys tend to the low 80s, he said.

Along with assistance from off-turnpike patrol posts, the Hiram post, which covers the toll road’s eastern third, plans several days of airplane-assisted speed enforcement during the I-80 campaign, said Lt. Joe Mannion, Hiram’s post commander.

Troopers said their hope is that beyond writing more tickets, their presence will persuade everyone on the route to slow down.

An aerial speed survey taken just last week in the Ohio Turnpike’s midsection showed that the 70-mph speed limit, in effect on the toll road for about 16 months, is routinely flouted, particularly by car drivers. The average car speed in the survey was 80 mph, Lieutenant Gockstetter said, while the average for large trucks and other commercial vehicles was 68.

The most recent speed survey for the western end, taken February in Fulton County, showed lower speeds, but the average car was still 2 mph over the limit, while commercial vehicles averaged 67 mph, Sergeant Sellers said.

Crash data, meanwhile, show the most hazardous parts of the turnpike are near service plazas, major interchanges, and work zones.

Besides the safety element, Ohio troopers also plan to target smugglers, officials said.

“I-80 is a major pipeline across the United States for trafficking drugs,” and getting that element off the road is important to the I-80 campaign, Sergeant Sellers said.

Lieutenant Gockstetter said smugglers often give themselves away with their exaggerated reactions to police vehicles along the turnpike.

“They’re so paranoid” that they over-correct, slowing down to well below the speed limit or ducking in behind tractor-trailers in apparent hope they won’t be seen, he said. “It’s pretty obvious to spot the behavior change.”

“This roadway’s our office,” Sergeant Sellers agreed. “We’re used to what normal is, so we pick up on unusual behavior.”

Patrol officials could not provide confirmation Tuesday that the turnpike is more heavily patrolled than other Ohio highways, but acknowledged that unlike those from off-turnpike posts, toll-road troopers do very little work on secondary roads. 

The three turnpike patrol posts and the Berea district command center all are paid for from toll revenue.

I-80 does not go through any part of Michigan, but that state’s transportation department is starting its own campaign today to push awareness of highway fatalities.

Messages will be displayed on selected electronic signs statewide reminding motorists of the year-to-date death toll on Michigan roads in hope that will persuade more attentive driving.

“It’s a startling statistic, and that’s the point,” state Transportation Director Kirk Steudle said in a prepared statement. 

“Displaying the number of lives lost on Michigan roads can be an effective way to influence driver behavior and increase driver focus.”

A Michigan Department of Transportation spokesman said Tuesday, however, that none of the electronic signs in Monroe County is included in the program, and he did not have an up-to-date count of Michigan’s traffic deaths in 2013.

Information from the Block News Alliance was used in this report.

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com  or 419-724-6094.



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