First in a three-part series
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Matt Seager awoke to whooshing rotors, whining engines, and demands he lay still.
As the medical helicopter raced his battered body through the night sky to a Columbus hospital, the 17-year-old struggled to remember what had happened minutes earlier on Route 37.
He remembered stopping his car for a train east of Columbus that July night in 2002. He remembered his friend sitting beside him, and his twin sisters buckled in the back seat.
He didn't remember the pickup slamming into the back of his Geo Metro.
He would spend the night in the hospital. His friend would spend days in a coma.
His sisters wouldn't survive.
They became two more victims of a road that has amassed a deadly distinction unnoticed by the state: Route 37, which snakes from Findlay to the hills of southeast Ohio, has the highest fatality rate of any major Ohio route.
A five-month investigation by The Blade - based on a computer analysis of thousands of state transportation records - has determined that motorists are more likely to die traveling Route 37 than any other major highway in the state.
And despite the fact that highway deaths remains one of America's biggest killers, The Blade has found that Ohio has no coordinated traffic safety program to fix deadly corridors like Route 37.
In a first-ever look at fatality rates over the state's entire major routes, the newspaper found that:
- Ohio is years behind eight states, including neighboring Kentucky, which have organized traffic safety corridor programs that commonly bring together highway engineers, driver-behavior experts, law enforcement, elected officials, and citizens to find low-cost solutions to reduce crashes on such deadly roads as Route 37.
- Without such a program, three different agencies responsible for traffic safety in Ohio have different definitions of what's dangerous, and often target different problems along the state's vast highway system. None ranks crash trends over long stretches of highway across Ohio.
- Unless the state is looking to build a new freeway - a pricey and rare occurrence - there is little formal coordination between traffic safety agencies and residents on ways to comprehensively lower crashes on problem stretches.
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Lorrie Laing, who administers one of those agencies, the Governor's Highway Safety Office, blames a past culture for many of the problems that kept the three agencies apart, a culture that she insists is beginning to erode.
"We're taking baby steps," she said. "We need buy-in from the top. I think that's what we're missing."
Arriving home from Bible study one February night in 2002, Bob and Bobbi Franklin pulled into their side garage and found a note in their back door. The Franklins assumed they'd had a visitor.
Shaking her head, Bobbi recalled with a sigh: "We sure did."
The visitor had been a compact car, which spun off the road and into their 170-year-old farmhouse southeast of Columbus. The note was from the fire department explaining what had happened.
The couple has grown used to the traffic crashes that occur at the busy intersection outside their Route 37 home, about 15 miles southeast of Columbus. They were surprised this time by the fact the car made it into their house and partly up the staircase.
As cars and trucks zoom over a nearby hill one evening, the couple's memories blur over all the accidents just outside their house, but some stick out.
The car going 110 mph that slid through their yard and took out a 30-foot blue spruce.
The drunk driver who years ago ran over Bobbi's uncle.
The motorist who died after darting out from a stop sign into traffic in 2001. And, two years later, the teenager who died after her friend darted out into traffic.
Thinking of the last two, she said: "We were lucky we weren't here for those."
Along the route, residents talk of screeching tires, plenty of near-misses, and of too many collisions that weren't avoided.
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They talk of comforting the injured - and cradling the dying.
"There for a while, I was getting low on towels and blankets," said Perry County resident Leandre Tankersley.
And they talk of their fear of the route - a fear backed up by data.
While some other major roads have had more deaths, they also have heavier traffic. So when you divide the number of deaths by their traffic volume, their rates of fatalities hover close to or even below the state average.
Not Route 37.
The Blade analysis found that the often narrow, two-lane road has a fatality rate of 3.0 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles over the past five years. That's the highest rate of any major Ohio route and 15 times worse than the state's safest thoroughfare, the Ohio Turnpike. That doesn't count the parts of Route 37 that piggyback bigger routes, such as when it joins U.S. 36 near Delaware. The state attributes crashes on those segments to the bigger routes.
The newspaper's analysis also found the rate of serious injuries on Route 37 - another way some states measure bad roads - ranks among the 10 worst major routes.
National safety experts aren't surprised. They long have known that the worst odds for drivers aren't the interstates or four-lane freeways, where the extra engineering and separation of traffic keeps the crash rate low.
Rather, the odds are consistently worse on two-lane, rural highways, where traffic still travels fast and a driver's margin of error is much smaller.
Yet there is no program in Ohio to rank long stretches of rural highways - and no program where the three traffic safety agencies work together to fix them.
In that respect, Ohio is like many other states, including Michigan. When the state can afford to spend heavy cash to build new roads, or turn narrow two-lane highways into spacious four-lane freeways, there's a host of meetings with local officials, police, and residents on how to plan and build the new roads.
But such projects are rare. Of the 152 miles of Route 37 that don't piggyback bigger routes, only three miles are four-lane roads. The state has plans to widen three more miles to four-lane, but that will take several years.
Even then, what will be left is a two-lane highway that falls under the state's uncoordinated efforts.
The Ohio Department of Transportation, the agency with the most safety money, will look for very small segments and problem intersections, using a set of formulas it has established to find bad spots and make specific engineering fixes. That has led to such things as a stoplight being added at one place on Route 37, and a hill being lowered 14 inches at Pleasantville Road, near the Franklins' home.
But engineers look for only small segments, at most two miles long. So their analyses often miss bigger stretches of dangerous roads where crashes are more spread out. Despite Route 37 having the highest fatality rate in The Blade's analysis, no parts of Route 37 made the state's top 200 list of problem segments in 2003.
The Ohio State Highway Patrol will allow its district offices to use their own judgment to determine their bad crash areas, then temporarily increase patrols at those spots until a new hot spot emerges. Troopers did so on the deadliest stretch of Route 37 for several months after the Seager twins' deaths, and at the stretch that's set to be widened.
But the criteria isn't uniform across Ohio, and boosted patrols aren't permanent. While some troopers may informally offer ODOT advice on engineering fixes, there's no formal program to enlist ODOT's help on each district's hot spots.
The Governor's Highway Safety Office will advertise statewide to curb drivers' bad behaviors, and will send cash to local law enforcement to boost patrols for drunken drivers, other bad driver behavior, or in high-risk counties.
Some of that cash no doubt went to extra patrols on parts of Route 37, but there's no measurement across the state of problem routes, and no formal coordination with ODOT for engineering fixes at spots picked for extra enforcement.
The agencies have begun to collaborate more. ODOT now pays state troopers to look for dangerous truckers along east-west highways near the Ohio Turnpike and bad drivers along high-crash freeways in Columbus, Cincinnati, and Cleveland.
And, even under the current setup, there's no dispute that the agencies' safety efforts have made a difference. Ohio's highway deaths generally have dropped over the years, even with an increase in traffic. Ohio's fatal rate last year was 1.16 per 100 million vehicle miles, among the lowest in the nation.
ODOT director Gordon Proctor cites that low fatality rate when defending any criticism of his agency's efforts, which he said are among the most aggressive in the nation in crunching data and re-engineering dangerous highway spots.
To prove it, he points to the fatality rates of states with more collaborative programs: "We already have a lower fatality rate than those other states."
That's true of most, but not all. Two states - Washington and New Jersey - both have rates 6 and 10 percent lower, respectively, and New Jersey started its program last year despite its already low rate, saying 700 deaths a year was too high.
"They are not statistics - they are our mothers and fathers, daughters, sons, our friends and our colleagues," New Jersey Transportation Commissioner Jack Lettiere said at the time. "And we cannot sit idly by and let these horrific trends continue."
And national advocates of collaboration say the real point is that, regardless of a state's current fatality rate, programs that provide a holistic approach to traffic safety save more lives.
Ms. Laing, of the Highway Safety Office, said she's ready for a more collaborative approach.
"We're all paddling as hard as we can to do our own little thing," Ms. Laing said. "Until we get together and see where we're replicating efforts, to see what we can do together, I don't know that it's going to work."
To traffic-safety consultant Susan Herbel, having all the agencies work together on fixing long stretches of roadway is a good place to start.
"If you start doing corridor analysis, it gives you an opportunity to bring everybody's resources to bear and really start solving a problem," said Ms. Herbel, who has worked with the Federal Highway Administration in advising states on safety planning.
It's a concept, advocates say, that's a perfect fit for roadways like Route 37, where every stretch has different crash patterns to be gleaned from a fresh look at the data.
One rainy November morning, about 1 a.m., a beam of headlights flashed into Jane Macke's bedroom window.
The Hancock County woman glanced outside to see a pickup on its side. Her husband dialed 911 and she raced down her driveway and saw something that would remain a vivid memory five years later.
A man lay in the ditch, thrown from his pickup, and was barely breathing. She kneeled beside him, held his hand, and tried to soothe him in the 10 to 15 minutes before his labored breathing stopped.
"I just did what I could and stayed close," she later recalled of the Nov. 26, 1999, crash.
He had run off the road south of Findlay, on a curve near County Road 37, that punctuates a long, straight, sparsely driven stretch of State Rt. 37 between Findlay and Delaware.
It is the common way to die along that stretch. Of the five fatal crashes in the past five years, three motorists ran off the road. Two of them were drunk.
But the more dangerous corridors are found further south.
As Route 37 rounds the northern and eastern edges of metro Columbus, the route becomes packed with commuters and trucks, with little room for error around the center line. Of the 16 fatal crashes along Route 37 from Sunbury to I-70, 11 were head-on collisions in an area with a higher fatality rate than similar roadways.
Traffic lessens slightly south of I-70 to Lancaster, and the pattern changes again. The Seager crash was a rear-ender that occurred when a pickup driver looked down to pick up his cellular phone. Three other vehicles ran off the road. And four vehicles darted out from stop signs into oncoming traffic.
This stretch contained an 11-mile segment with the highest fatality rate found along Route 37: 4.6 per 100 million vehicle miles. That's double the rate of similar types of stretches.
The rates improve east of Lancaster, but still are worse than similar roadways. The increasingly hilly and windy roadway in that stretch had eight fatal crashes - four from motorists who weren't wearing seat belts when they ran off the road.
One is seared in Ms. Tankersley's memory.
Tires skidding on gravel. The crunch of metal. The driver thrown beside a tree.
That drizzly afternoon in May, 2002, Ms. Tankersley rushed outside to find Holly Cain's car flipped into a nearby creek bed.
Ms. Tankersley put a blanket over the young mother and picked the twigs out of her face. But the 25-year-old's injuries were too severe, and she died 46 minutes after the crash.
Ms. Cain had lost control on a wet, hilly curve that Ms. Tankersley said has long hosted crashes, and a spot for which she's sought improvements for years.
The only thing left to do was try to comfort the Cain family.
The young mother had been on her way to pick up her youngest girl, a 2-year-old, from a church day care. Hours earlier, she had proudly shown co-workers pictures of her two girls in dance class.
Ms. Tankersley and the Cain family searched the crash site in vain for those pictures.
"We never could find them," recalled her mother-in-law, Jane Cain. "We figured they must have washed down the creek."
'Make a difference'
Mark McConnell didn't want anybody dying the way his wife did.
On her way home from the beauty parlor with their 10-year-old daughter, Lois McConnell topped a hill and drifted over the center line into the path of a pickup truck.
He knew it was her fault, but he also believed a better-designed road could help reduce such crashes. So he composed a detailed e-mail to the governor's office, describing the crash and suggesting that a relatively new engineering product - center-line rumble strips - be put on that part of Route 37 to alert drivers who drift left-of-center.
"It would be nice to know that others aren't experiencing the loss of their love. It's sad," he wrote. "We can make a difference where we can."
He got an automatic electronic response e-mail thanking him for his thoughts, but nothing else.
Had he lived in the states of Oregon, California, or six others across the country, his e-mail could have been forwarded to the state's special safety corridor program. Program managers could have done safety studies on that stretch and determined that section posed above-average dangers. They could have formed working groups of highway engineers, police, traffic-safety advocates, local officials, and citizens like Mr. McConnell.
They could have collectively deciphered the crash patterns and brainstormed ways to improve the odds for motorists - maybe by adding the center-line rumble strips, or stationing troopers at certain places. Maybe by putting specially designed place mats at nearby restaurants warning of the dangers, or boosting traffic fines there.
But Mr. McConnell lives in Ohio. Despite having the fifth busiest state highway network in the country, Ohio has no such program
The state did once.
In 1993, the state funded a new pilot program pushed by the federal government that teamed up engineers, citizens, police, and traffic-safety advocates to find low-cost ways to improve stretches of road that the government can't afford to rebuild.
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From 1994 through 1997 a special committee made up of various state and local agencies teamed up to reduce crashes on three pilot sites, including U.S. 20 through parts of Sylvania Township and Toledo.
Seven years after the pilot program ended, Lucas County traffic safety coordinator Gwen Neundorfer still lauds the concept: "I'd do it again in a minute."
But she can't point to any study of its successes. The Governor's Highway Safety Office turned down her request in 1998 to research the program's effectiveness. By then, the corridor concept was dying in Ohio, as state officials reacted to federal officials pushing a different type of traffic-safety program.
With other programs to fund, Highway Safety Office administrators stopped pushing what for them was a costly corridor concept, and local groups stopped requesting it, said Dan Burns, the office's grants manager.
Yet other states - faced with the same shift in federal philosophy, and using the same pots of federal money - didn't kill their programs. They expanded them.
They say their programs are blessings in an era when states can't afford to build their way out of unsafe roadways.
"It's easy, and you can quickly identify these corridors," said Larry Christianson, who ran Oregon state's program for 14 years. "With a modest investment and a short turn-around, you can get out there and get something on the ground and start making a difference. You've just got to pull players together."
Other states, such as Kentucky, have restarted dormant programs.
Boyd Sigler, of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, offered a simple reason for tackling highway safety corridors: "We know that it works."
Two thousand miles away, Marv Ryser has seen the results in his 11 years of running Washington state's program, which earned a national safety award. He cited a handful of studies, including one that showed the money saved from reduced crashes was 35 times the money it cost to improve the corridors.
"It's almost an embarrassing benefit to talk about," he said. "It's like, 'Why aren't we doing this on every highway in the world?' "