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Published: 1/22/2005

Traffic safety task force targets risky Ohio roads

BY JOE MAHR
BLADE STAFF WRITER

COLUMBUS - With Ohio lacking the level of collaborative highway safety efforts found in other states, the state's traffic-safety officials will start a program aimed at combining resources to save lives on deadly stretches of roadway.

At its first meeting yesterday, the Governor's Task Force on Highway Safety announced it will use the combined resources of Ohio's three traffic-safety agencies to target major routes with the highest fatality rates in the state. It will evolve into a program to identify other dangerous stretches of roadway across Ohio.

"We certainly see this as a key opportunity for the state of Ohio," said Kenneth Morckel, director of the Department of Public Safety.

Gov. Bob Taft ordered the creation of the task force after a series of articles in The Blade in November - "Behind the Curve: Ohio's Killer Corridors." With highway crashes among the nation's biggest killers, the series found that Ohio's collaborative efforts at targeting problem stretches of roadway were years behind other states.

The three-day series found that the state's three traffic agencies - the Department of Transportation, Highway Patrol, and Governor's Highway Safety Office - have their own way to define what's dangerous, leading each to target different areas of the 19,000 miles of state-administered roadways with different methods.

National traffic safety experts say that the best traffic-safety efforts use combined methods - engineering, education, and enforcement - to tackle dangerous roadways.

Eight states, including neighboring Kentucky and Pennsylvania, have special "safety corridor" programs that try to identify the worst stretches of roadway across their states and team up highway engineers, law enforcement, driver-behavior experts, elected officials, and residents to help find ways to fix them

Ohio officials insist they've done such collaboration informally for years, although they can point to only a handful of examples. Those efforts often don't have all the components of engineering, education, and enforcement - combined with public input found in most formal safety-corridor programs.

But the officials said they don't mind the attention focused on highway safety, a subject that remains a major killer but often gets short shrift in the public spotlight.

The Blade series analyzed thousands of state computer records on fatal crashes and traffic loads for each U.S., state, or interstate route from 1999 to 2003, the most recent data available. To ensure a low-volume road with few fatalities didn't dilute the findings, the analysis considered only roads that were at least 50 miles long and averaged 1 million vehicles per mile per year.

That analysis determined that motorists had the worst odds of dying on State Rt. 37, which winds from Findlay to southeast Ohio. The fatality rate on that road was twice the state average. The analysis then divided the route into sections and found that several sections around Columbus had particularly high fatality rates.

The task force decided to initially use The Blade's methodology for identifying problem roadways, with Route 37 and six other major routes now destined for special study this year by the group. The task force plans to contact local officials and residents and host meetings for input on ways to lower serious crashes on those roads. The task force expects to target areas where crashes are clustered. Under the state's analysis of the data, lowering the fatality rate to average levels would eliminate 64 fatal crashes on those seven routes in the next five years.

The new program is welcome news to Lt. Scott Reed of the Pleasantville Township Fire Department. The department responds to crashes along the section of Route 37 in its jurisdiction, and he said he'd like to offer his input on ways to reduce the number of crashes there.

"I'd like to sit on the committee myself," he said.

In the program's second year, the task force plans to formulate its own methodology for identifying and targeting dangerous stretches of roadway. While not endorsing the idea, the state released data showing that if it concentrated on about 1,000 two-mile sections of roadway across the state with high fatality rates, the state could eliminate 853 fatal crashes over five years.

Eight states have corridor programs and each program is unique. But most solicit input from citizens on problem stretches and then prioritize the stretches based on their rates of fatalities and serious injuries. And they often don't target the entire length of routes, with most programs picking sections of about five to 30 miles long.

While announcing the program, state officials were quick to insist Ohio has made major strides in highway safety.

Ohio's overall fatality rate was among the lowest in the nation, but much of that can be attributed to Ohio's heavy highway traffic. When looking at roads other than highways - such as the two-lane, rural routes often targeted by safety-corridor programs in other states - Ohio's fatality rate ranks in the middle of the pack.

It's part of a broader debate of how to reduce deaths on the nation's highways. States can target spots with the most raw number of fatal crashes, hoping to save the most lives with limited resources. But those high-volume routes often have low fatality rates. National safety experts have long known that motorists' worst odds are on lower-volume, rural two-lane roads - even if they don't have the highest raw number of crashes. Safety corridor programs often target the latter type of road.

Gordon Proctor, director of the Ohio Department of Transportation, said it's important to target both types of roadways.

"I think we can add the safety corridor into the arsenal of tools we have for highway safety," he said. "[But] there's never going to be one strategy that solves this problem."

Contact Joe Mahr at:

jmahr@theblade.com

or 419-724-6180.



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