COLUMBUS — A bill increasing penalties for drivers who go the wrong way on certain divided highways in Ohio can’t guarantee crashes like the one in March that killed three Bowling Green State University sorority sisters won’t happen again, the legislation’s sponsor said Wednesday.
“It’s hard to legislate common sense,” Sen. Mark Wagoner (R., Ottawa Hills) told a Senate committee. “This isn’t going to solve the problem of wrong-way driving. But it is going to say to somebody, look, if you do this and you become a threat to everybody on the road, there’s going to be serious consequences.”
This marked Senate Bill 336’s first hearing, and its sponsors have received no commitment that it will pass before lawmakers wrap up the year's business next month.
Under current law, a driver caught heading the wrong way on a divided highway faces a minor misdemeanor carrying a fine of $150 and points against his driver’s license, but no jail time. If the driver has been found guilty of other traffic infractions within the previous year, the violation may climb as high as a third-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.
Sponsored by Mr. Wagoner and Sen. Jim Hughes (R., Columbus), the bill would require that anyone caught driving farther than 500 feet on the wrong side of an interstate highway would face a one-year license suspension. Violation of that suspension could lead to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
If that driver killed or injured someone, he would face a license suspension of two to 10 years, violation of which would lead to a third-degree felony carrying three years in prison and potentially a $10,000 fine.
An intoxicated driver who violates the law would face a fourth-degree felony carrying a six to 18-month prison term and a $5,000 fine.
The bill does not specify whether an interstate highway is one that is part of the Interstate System — such as I-75, I-280, or the Ohio Turnpike (I-80/I-90) — or any divided highway that crosses state lines, such as U.S. 23, parts of which in northwest Ohio are built to freeway standards.
Members of the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee noted that often these violations are inadvertent, the result of someone mistaking an exit ramp for an entrance ramp.
“These incidents do occur,” Mr. Wagoner said. “Five hundred feet gives enough time for someone to realize they’re going in the wrong direction and turn around and start heading in the right direction. If you go more than 500 feet the wrong way on that road, you’re not paying attention. At that point, the penalties would kick in.”
He said tougher penalties should be used in conjunction with better signs, improved highway design, and other methods to reduce wrong-way crashes.
Six people were killed in two wrong-way crashes in March in the Toledo area.
The three sorority sisters headed to the Detroit airport for a spring break trip were killed, and two others were injured, when a wrong-way car driven by a Perrysburg Township woman hit them head-on March 2 on I-75 near Dunbridge. That driver was also killed.
Two Monroe men died on March 12 when their car, headed north in the southbound lanes of I-75 near downtown Toledo, crashed head-on into a rental cargo truck.
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