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Published: Saturday, 3/3/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Police say ways to halt errant motorists few

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

When police receive a report about a wrong-way freeway driver like the one involved in a head-on collision on I-75 in Wood County early Friday, normal practice is to try to locate that driver and confine him or her, while taking whatever steps are practical to warn other motorists, an Ohio State Highway Patrol command officer said.

"There's no exact rules as to what you do," said Lt. John Altman, now on staff at district headquarters in Findlay and a past commander of the Toledo post.

But the most common initial responses, he said, are to "contact other law enforcement agencies" to deploy as much manpower as possible and "try and box the situation in as best you can."

What police and researchers have yet to find is an effective way to keep intoxicated or confused drivers -- along with the occasional deliberate troublemaker -- from entering the wrong side of divided highways in the first place, because time to stop them is precious.

The most commonly suggested remedy -- spike strips such as those used to stop auto theft at rental-car lots or payment evasion at parking garages -- was tried in California decades ago. It was declared a failure because the spikes, over time, began puncturing tires on traffic going the right way, a researcher told The Blade after an Oct. 15 wrong-way crash in Toledo in which a North Ontario Street man died.

"At rental-car lots and in parking garages, you have very low speeds, and they work well in that low-speed application," said Scott Cooner, a Texas Transportation Institute research engineer. But in a higher-speed environment, "they did not have good results" because the spikes gradually loosened and became hazardous, he said.

And even if spike strips didn't malfunction, their use to protect freeway exit ramps against wrong-way vehicles is unpopular with emergency responders, who sometimes need to use those ramps to get to accident scenes otherwise blocked by backed-up traffic.

"It sounds like a great idea," said Lt. Matthew Hertzfeld, a spokesman for the Toledo Fire Department. "But when an accident completely blocks the highway, we have had to bring crews in the wrong way," he said.

Lieutenant Altman said troopers won't even use "stop sticks" -- tire-puncturing devices typically used to disable criminals' fleeing cars -- to combat wrong-way drivers until they have a clear idea where such a driver is.

A stop stick "would deflate the tires of any vehicle that would pass over it," not just one going the wrong way, the lieutenant said. "We have to use them very carefully. If we're chasing a vehicle, that's one thing, because we know where the vehicle is and we can notify other officers down the road."

Nor are state troopers trained to ram an errant motorist nor attempt to shoot the tires out to stop the vehicle, Lieutenant Altman said.

"This is an extreme situation. As far as we're concerned, we're thinking of what is the safest thing to do," he said.

Using road spikes or other aggressive tactics such as ramming the vehicle or firing a weapon to stop the wrong-way motorist poses an extreme danger to other drivers as well, he said.

"You never know what that collateral damage will be," Lieutenant Altman said.

Consequently, efforts so far in Ohio have focused on adding signs and pavement markings to freeway ramps where officials believe the risk for wrong-way entry is highest. Last year, the Ohio Department of Transportation painted wrong-way arrows on ramps at 12 interchanges along I-75, I-475, and I-280.

After a double-fatal, head-on crash two years ago involving a Deshler man who entered northbound I-75 the wrong way at Cygnet Road, ODOT upgraded signs and added arrows there too.

Mr. Cooner said another recommended step is to place Do Not Enter signs on low posts at the ends of exit ramps, where drunken motorists are most likely to see them. Research indicates that drunken drivers often use pavement stripes to navigate, so they may better see signs that are close to the pavement, he said.

Besides regular signs and pavement markings, Mr. Cooner said another method being tested on toll roads in the Dallas area is to use vehicle detection systems -- which employ radar or cables embedded in the highway -- to illuminate signs and pavement arrows when a wayward motorist enters a ramp the wrong way. This can warn the wrong-way driver and other drivers.

Until better solutions are developed, Mr. Cooner said, the one step all motorists can take to reduce the risk of colliding with a wrong-way freeway driver is to avoid the left lane, especially on curves or where sight distance is poor. Drunken drivers' instinct to keep to the right means they end up in the high-speed lane if they enter the wrong side of a divided highway.

"The left lane, especially after midnight, is not a safe place to be," he said.

Wood County Sheriff Mark Wasylyshyn said a case-by-case analysis of each location, as was done at Cygnet Road, is all that can really be done.

"Anything can be prevented, if you have the money to spend on it," he said. "You could put up gates at all the exit ramps. But there's not a practical way to eliminate it [wrong-way driving]."

The sheriff echoed the response strategy Lieutenant Altman described when reports of wrong-way traffic come in.

"We immediately send out deputies. We try to head off the vehicle, and get the driver's attention, and ward off the other traffic," he said. "But you really have to be at the right place at the right time" because opposing vehicles' closing speed, or combined velocity -- often 130 mph or higher -- provides very little reaction time.

Sheriff Wasylyshyn noted that authorities have, on several occasions, been successful in their efforts to stop wrong-way drivers, but the public often doesn't hear of those instances. Motorists who observe an oncoming vehicle should "get off to the right side and try to stop" so that any impact is at as low a velocity as possible, the sheriff said.

But the accident Friday, he said, occurred at a critical spot where forward visibility was limited by a crest in the highway where it bridges a railroad track. Other recent wrong-way crashes in the Toledo area occurred near curves where "right-way" drivers had little or no time to react.

The Texas Transportation Institute's research has developed a profile for the typical wrong-way driver, Mr. Cooner said: a drunken male, in the wee hours, driving in the left lane.

The wrong-way driver involved on Friday met two of those criteria -- wee hours, in the left lane -- but was a woman. Determining any intoxication will be a part of the police investigation.

Alcohol and darkness were factors in two notorious wrong-way crashes in Toledo, and intoxication is suspected in the Oct. 15 crash on I-75 at Phillips Avenue.

On Dec. 30, 2007, five members of a Maryland family heading home from visiting relatives in Michigan were killed, and two others were seriously injured, in a late-evening crash on southbound I-280 just south of I-75 in North Toledo.

The other driver, Michael Gagnon, 24, received a 43-year prison term in June, 2008, for convictions on five counts of aggravated vehicular homicide and two of aggravated vehicular assault.

Authorities said Gagnon had become drunk at an Oregon bar and drove about five miles the wrong way on I-280 after leaving. Police were responding to several motorists' calls about Gagnon's wrong-way vehicle when that crash occurred.

Almost two years later, on the day after Christmas, 2009, Sarah Heator, 32, of Sylvania was killed on her way to work at St. Charles Hospital in a wee-hours crash on I-475 in West Toledo. The wrong-way driver, Rickey H. Miller, Jr., 31, of Oregon, was found to have a blood-alcohol level three times the legal 0.08 percent limit, was sentenced to nine years in prison, and lost his driver's license permanently.

The police report about the Oct. 15 crash that killed Matthew Davis, 37, said officers suspected Christopher Jones, 35, of Perrysburg was intoxicated when he drove south in I-75's northbound left lane near Phillips Avenue. But Sgt. Joe Heffernan, a Toledo police spokesman, said Friday that test results have not yet been returned.

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



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