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Published: Monday, 11/15/2004

BEHIND THE CURVE: OHIO'S KILLER CORRIDORS

Small section of Rt. 2 beset by fatal wrecks

Experts: Road would benefit from special safety program

BY JOE MAHR
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Second in a three-part series

The driver of this sport utility vehicle was killed after he missed a sharp curve on State Rt. 2 in Jerusalem Township and rammed into a parked tractor-trailer in 2000. The driver of this sport utility vehicle was killed after he missed a sharp curve on State Rt. 2 in Jerusalem Township and rammed into a parked tractor-trailer in 2000.
OHIO STATE HIGHWAY PATROL Enlarge

After a day's worth of driving, long-haul trucker David Christensen pulled into a parking lot off State Rt. 2 late one Thursday in search of a peaceful night's sleep.

He picked the wrong place to stop.

Before daybreak on Aug. 18, 2000, a sport utility vehicle missed a turn on a sharp curve in Jerusalem Township and slammed into the semi cab where Mr. Christensen lay asleep. The SUV burst into flames as the startled trucker and a passerby tried to pull the unconscious SUV driver to safety.

The South Dakota trucker escaped with a scratch on his forehead, but the SUV driver died on an 8.4-mile stretch of road that has the highest fatality rate of any major stretch in northwest Ohio, an analysis by The Blade found.

A computer analysis by The Blade found that Route 2 as a whole, stretching through northern Ohio, was not the region's deadliest route, despite its reputation. That distinction belongs to Route 53, from McCutchenville to Catawba Island.

READ MORE: Behind the curve: Ohio's killer corridors

But in dividing the region's major routes into 108 smaller stretches, to pinpoint the worst 5-20 mile corridors of roadway, The Blade analysis found that the 8.4-mile section of Route 2 east of Oregon topped all others.

It's the type of smaller corridor that national experts say is a prime candidate for the kinds of special safety programs implemented in other states for their problem corridors.

From the beginning of two-lane traffic east of Oregon past the two 90-degree curves near Bono, the stretch saw eight deaths and 25 serious injuries from 1999 through 2003. The fatality rate along this stretch of State Rt. 2 -- 7.9 per 100 million vehicle miles -- is six times the state average and worse than all the 107 other stretches of major roads studied by The Blade in northwest Ohio.

Residents like Ray Cedoz, a Jerusalem Township farmer and former trustee, just shake their heads at the newspaper's finding.

"It scares the heck out of me to go on this road with any farm equipment," he said.

Unlike what is done for problem stretches in other states, however, the State Rt. 2 corridor has not had the benefit of a coordinated effort between the three state government agencies charged with roadway safety. Eight states tackle problem routes

by teaming up highway engineers, law enforcement, traffic-safety experts, local officials, and residents.

Ohio and Michigan do not.

Five years ago, the Ohio Department of Transportation was able to widen Route 2 from Oregon east to North Curtice Road. But funds aren't available to widen the route east to Port Clinton, so the department is focusing on smaller engineering improvements.

In the meantime, the raw number of crashes on the 8.4-mile stretch has hovered around three dozen every year from 1999 to 2003. Each year there was at least one fatal crash, and serious-injury crashes increased over the five-year period.

A complex corridor

There's not just one reason for the crashes.

The Blade analyzed the factors in all 19 crashes involving a death or serious injury along that stretch of Route 2, and found that the reasons varied depending on which segment of the road was involved.

On the western-most edge of the corridor -- beside the recently widened four-lane segment -- four of the six crashes were head-ons, killing one and seriously injuring seven.

Among the injured was Shannon Rice, a 21-year-old woman from Graytown in Ottawa County.

On a Saturday afternoon last November, she was heading toward Toledo when an eastbound pickup veered over the center line between Cousino and Decant roads. The pickup sideswiped a tractor-trailer in front of Ms. Rice and spun into the path of her Chevy Cavalier.

"I just remember closing my eyes when the airbags came out and my seat belt tightened. And I looked up and saw I was in a yard and had glass on me, and I thought my elbow was broken," she later told the highway patrol.

Further east along Route 2, of the seven crashes between Decant and Howard roads, only one was a head-on. Among the rest: three vehicles ran off the straightaway, two ran into the back of other vehicles turning left, and a car pulled out in front of motorcyclist Dennis Lewinski.

Mr. Lewinski was left physically disabled and blind. His wife, Sandy, now takes care of him, and tries to describe to him what he's missing.

"I tell him the flowers are blooming and this and this. He can't even see it, which I can't imagine," she said, abruptly ending the thought to catch herself from crying.

Beyond the straightaway is the "Bono curve" section with the two infamous 90-degree curves. At least five of six crashes there involved alcohol.

The only one that's unclear is the death of Robert Sanchez, the Lorain man who ran into the back of Mr. Christensen's parked semi on the southern curve, near State Rt. 579. His body was too badly burned to test for alcohol or drugs.

Those at fault included drivers like John R. Harmon, who told police he left a Jerusalem Township strip club drunk early one Wednesday morning and couldn't make the Bono curve six miles down the road. He slammed head-on into a semi and had to be flown by medical helicopter to Toledo Hospital.

When a state trooper asked him at the hospital how much he had to drink, the then-41-year-old responded: "Too damn much." He served 10 days in jail and had his license suspended for a year.

Jerusalem Township resident Ray Cedoz stands on State Rt. 2 just east of Oregon, where the road narrows from four to two lanes. Mr. Cedoz had fought for years for a wider Route 2, but he said he’d help if, in the meantime, the state began a safety corridor program there to cut crashes. Jerusalem Township resident Ray Cedoz stands on State Rt. 2 just east of Oregon, where the road narrows from four to two lanes. Mr. Cedoz had fought for years for a wider Route 2, but he said he’d help if, in the meantime, the state began a safety corridor program there to cut crashes.
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Other drunken drivers -- and those they hit -- weren't as lucky.

After a Saturday night of drinking heavily with friends on Kelleys Island, Chad Miller sped back to his Toledo home just after midnight July 11, 1999, swerving so much that people he passed thought the 21-year-old wouldn't make it home alive.

They were right.

On the Bono curve, near the same spot Mr. Harmon hit the semi, Mr. Miller crossed the center line at 90 mph and slammed into a compact car driven by Susan Perez, 17, of Norwalk, who was driving her aunt home from Toledo. All three died.

Four hours after the crash, Ms. Perez's mother, Maryetta, was awaked and told she'd never again see her daughter, who had dreamed of becoming a special-education teacher.

Five years later, Ms. Perez continues to struggle with her loss.

"There's some days you can go on," she said, "and there's other days you can't make it through."

Program that could help

Because 2004 data wasn't available, the newspaper analysis did not include any crashes from this year, including one that killed six on a different stretch of Route 2 near Oak Harbor.

But the data available shows that some Route 2 stretches are relatively safe freeways. Others run through lower-speed and less-dangerous urban areas. But the stretch between Curtice Road and State Rt. 579 has all the ingredients for a high fatality rate: a busy two-lane, high-speed highway.

Beyond fatalities, that stretch also has the highest rate of serious injuries among major roadway stretches in northwest Ohio. States with special traffic safety corridor programs often determine bad stretches of highway by adding both rates together, to ensure that a stretch's high fatality rate isn't an anomaly.

The stretch would appear to be a prime candidate for a safety corridor in the eight states with such a program.

In Oregon state, a state with one of the most advanced safety programs, the 17 corridors included in the program averaged a rate of 12 fatal and serious-injury crashes per 100 million vehicle miles.

Compare that to the Route 2 stretch: 18 fatal and serious-injury crashes per 100 million vehicle miles. That's for crashes spread over the past five years. If you look at just crashes over the past three years, as Oregon state does, the rate jumps to 26.

And because more than one person can be killed or injured in each crash, the rate of actual deaths and serious injuries is higher for this stretch of Route 2 -- 32.4 per 100 million vehicle miles.

Most traffic-safety experts agree that the best way to permanently and significantly lower the fatal and serious crash rates on busy two-lane highways is to make them four-lane freeways. That's clear even from the data on Route 2.

The 6.4-mile, four-lane section of Route 2 just west of the deadly stretch in question had about the same traffic level, but no fatalities and 10 serious injuries.

The combined fatality and serious-injury rate on the four-lane segment was less than half of the neighboring stretch to the east.

But such conversions aren't ODOT converted the final five miles of that western stretch in 1999 at a cost of $6 million a mile.

Despite a half-century push from residents and public officials along Route 2 to have the state widen the busy two-lane route to Port Clinton, the state still hasn't been able to come up with most of the money to widen the final 23 miles.

In 1997, the state pledged $19 million to help pay for the wid-

ening, but that's only a fraction of what it would cost, so local ODOT officials are spending it on spot improvements, such as widening corners and adding turn lanes.

It will remain a two-lane highway, with no set timeline for making it a four-lane freeway.

Relying on just low-cost engineering improvements often isn't enough on problem stretches, traffic-safety advocates say, because there are a host of reasons for these crashes beyond design flaws.

Perhaps a curve is too sharp, or a shoulder too narrow. Drivers may be speeding, drunk, or simply inattentive.

"If you don't address the behavioral issues, you're not getting at the heart of the problem," said Terry Schiavone, a regional coordinator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration who has experience with comprehensive fixes of bad stretches of highway.

Other states with corridor programs combine engineering fixes with the resources of police and traffic-safety advertising on problem stretches. That hasn't happened on this stretch of Route 2.

State troopers have not established extra patrols along that stretch, and there are no grants from the Governor's Highway Safety Office to target education on any specific corridor.

ODOT is trying a unique approach to reduce truck traffic on Route 2 and other roads that parallel the Ohio Turnpike -- subsidizing lower turnpike truck tolls. ODOT is also subsidizing about $3 million a year in boosted police enforcement of trucks along parallel roads.

But it's unclear how much that will reduce the crash rate on this stretch of Route 2. Of the 19 fatal and serious-injury crashes from 1999 to 2003, six involved collisions with semis. Only one was the trucker's fault.

Mr. Cedoz, who for years fought for a wider Route 2, said that's the only long-term solution to reducing serious crashes there. Nevertheless, if the state would form a special corridor program for Route 2, he said he'd be ready to lend his ideas and time to help save lives.

"We've got to do something," he said.

Contact Joe Mahr at:

jmahr@theblade.com

or 419-724-6180.



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