Crashes declined on routes parallel to the Ohio Turnpike by 5 percent, and injury or fatal crashes by 8 percent, during the year after state officials launched a program to attract heavy trucks back to the toll road, a report issued yesterday by the Ohio Highway Patrol states.
The patrol said truck and bus crashes on such routes as State Rt. 2, U.S. 6, U.S. 20, and U.S. 422 declined by an average of 6 percent during the year after Sept. 8, 2004, when the turnpike's truck speed limit rose from 55 to 65 mph, compared with the 12 months before.
A further inducement for trucks to use the toll road was a fare rollback averaging 25 percent that the Ohio Turnpike Commission implemented on Jan. 1, 2005.
But when taken as a whole, the crash statistics for both the turnpike and its parallel routes during the period studied are more sober.
The 141 fewer commercial-vehicle crashes that the highway patrol counted on the parallel routes were offset by 230 more crashes involving such vehicles on the turnpike - a 40 percent increase - compared with the average from the previous three years. And while there were 25 fewer truck and bus crashes on the toll-road alternates, 31 more occurred on the turnpike, the patrol said.
The report fuels, but does not resolve, an ongoing debate over the relative value of the higher speed limit and the lower tolls toward attracting truckers to the turnpike. The top truck speed on all other Ohio roads, including freeways, is 55 mph.
Both measures were taken as parts of the Northern Ohio Freight Strategy that Gov. Bob Taft announced in October, 2004, as an effort to reduce crashes involving trucks on the parallel routes.
Lt. Rick Zwayer, a highway patrol spokesman, said his agency considers the higher speed limit to be mainly to blame for the increase in turnpike crashes, which he said rose by much higher percentages than can be explained by the 17 percent increase in toll-road trucks.
"It certainly is clear that truck traffic was diverted, to some extent, to the Ohio Turnpike, and safety was enhanced on the alternate routes," Lieutenant Zwayer said. "It also is clear that, in comparison, the increase in turnpike crashes does not strike a balance with the safety enhancements on the parallel routes."
But Gary Suhadolnik, the turnpike's executive director, disputed the notion that toll-road safety has worsened. The three-year comparison period used for the turnpike included the months immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, a time during which truck traffic dropped off sharply, he said.
If the mileage trucks are now driving on the turnpike, not just the raw number of trucks entering and exiting the toll road, is considered, the crash statistics are "actually where you would expect them with these volumes of traffic," Mr. Suhadolnik said.
In a report it submitted to the state legislature earlier this month on the turnpike truck campaign, the Ohio Department of Transportation declared the effort to be a success overall, though "there is an open question on the safety impacts of the higher truck speed limits on the turnpike, so this issue still requires monitoring and scrutiny."
ODOT cited "dramatic accident reductions" on the parallel routes, noting in particular that Route 2 between Toledo and Port Clinton had no fatal crashes in 2005 after having 24 fatal crashes that killed 39 people between 1995 and 2004.
Governor Taft announced the Northern Ohio Freight Strategy several months after a multi-vehicle crash on Route 2 in Carroll Township - which included a tractor-trailer but was blamed on an impaired sport utility vehicle driver - killed a family of six headed home to Detroit from Cedar Point.
In Bellevue, where turnpike-parallel U.S. 20 is Main Street, Safety-service Director Jeff Crosby said the turnpike changes have dramatically reduced the truck traffic that once clogged downtown.
"It has made a direct impact on the city - our guesses are somewhere in the 25 percent range," he said. "It was a very good thing for Bellevue. I'd hate to see anything change."
Woodville police Chief Roy Whitehead estimated a 10 to 15 percent decline in trucks on U.S. 20 through his village, but called that a disappointment.
"There is a difference, but not a considerable amount," the police chief said. "We were hoping for more."
The highway patrol's analysis also said while total crashes were down on the parallel routes, fatal crashes increased from 54 to 79 comparing the 12 months before and after the turnpike's truck speed limit increased. Most of that increase did not involve trucks, and more than half of the passenger-vehicle crashes were alcohol related, the report said.
Reducing the truck volume on the parallel routes may have "opened the road up" to reckless or inebriated drivers who responded by driving faster, Lieutenant Zwayer surmised.
On the turnpike, the highway patrol said, the average truck speed in August, 2005, was 66 mph, up 7 percent from before the limit went up, while the average passenger-vehicle's speed had risen 1 percent to 74 mph. Lieutenant Zwayer said faster-moving trucks means more severe impacts when they crash.
Blade staff writers Erica Ray and Steve Murphy contributed to this report.
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