Driving instructor had earlier collision

Accident occurred a few days before fatal crash with student

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  • A minivan collided with a vehicle driven by a 16-year-old student driver on Monday, resulting in two deaths south of Whitehouse.
    A minivan collided with a vehicle driven by a 16-year-old student driver on Monday, resulting in two deaths south of Whitehouse.

    A driving instructor who died along with a student driver Monday in a Waterville Township collision was involved a few days before in a collision nearby in which he allegedly failed to stop at a stop sign.

    Key Driving School Inc. instructor Thomas P. Smith, 48, of Whitehouse and Joseph A. Franks, 16, of rural Swanton were killed Monday at Neapolis-Waterville and Heller roads when young Franks, an Evergreen High School junior, allegedly ran a stop sign in the training car and was struck by a minivan.

    Key’s training car, which passed a state inspection in November, had brake pedals for the driver and instructor but there were no signs of braking, according to the Ohio Highway Patrol. Minivan driver Kathleen Woods, 48, of Swanton was injured and taken to ProMedica St. Luke’s Hospital in Maumee.

    “Obviously, our main investigation now is trying to figure out why neither occupant in the car reacted to the stop sign,” patrol Sgt. Robert Sellers said.

    On Thursday Mr. Smith, a local pastor and father of four, was driving his own Buick Terraza when he allegedly failed to stop at a stop sign at a Providence Township corner about 2.5 miles away from Monday’s crash scene.

    According to a patrol report, Mr. Smith was westbound on Neowash Road about 2:30 p.m. that day when he failed to stop and was struck by a southbound pickup truck on State Rt. 295.

    The other driver, 17-year-old Corey Selders of Grand Rapids, Ohio, said he had no time to react. The collision caused a trailer Mr. Smith was towing to jackknife and hit the pickup’s passenger door.

    “I was knocked out for a bit. At first I thought I hit a pole,” young Selders said.

    Mr. Smith was charged with a traffic violation and had been set to appear May 6 in Maumee Municipal Court.

    Nancy Smith said her husband was driving their 13-year-old son home and was pulling a heavy load when that crash occurred. She said he had just left a driveway before the stop sign.

    The earlier crash is not part of the patrol’s current investigation.

    “As far as our crash investigation goes, the only thing we are really concerned with is: Did he have a valid license at the time of the crash, and did he have a valid teaching certificate,” Sergeant Sellers said. “He had both.”

    Mr. Smith applied for driving-instructor certification in 2012 and renewed it in 2013 and 2014, according to the Ohio Department of Public Safety.

    Instructors are required to report traffic convictions to the driving school, which then must report them to the state, department spokesman Kristen Castle said

    Mr. Smith, a Key employee for about two years, was not required to report the earlier incident because he had not been convicted. He sent a text message to school owner Bonnie Lech indicating something had happened, but Ms. Lech said they had no chance to discuss it.

    Investigators hope to glean information about the fatal crash by examining the training car’s data recorder. No charges are expected to be filed.

    “We are still trying to determine, as the instructor, what caused him to lose sight of what was going on,” Sergeant Sellers said, adding the teen driver’s inexperience was likely a factor.

    Friends and classmates mourned the deaths of young Franks and Mr. Smith, who was pastor of Grace Bible Fellowship of Swanton. He held a master of divinity degree and met his wife while they were enrolled at a Bible college, according to the church’s Web site.

    Mr. Smith had a “very big influence on a lot of people,” said Robert Houser, a congregant who described the pastor as amiable.

    Some of young Franks’ Evergreen classmates wore red Tuesday in his honor, and counselors and clergy met with students, Superintendent of Schools Jim Wyse said. The teen had attended Penta Career Center during his sophomore year.

    “... [H]e was very polite, very nice, very pleasant to be around … definitely a great student who will be sorely missed,” Mr. Wyse said.

    Staff writer Marlene Harris-Taylor contributed to this report.

    Contact Vanessa McCray at: vmccray@theblade.com or 419-724-6065, or on Twitter @vanmccray.