Aggressive driver often dead wrong

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 1

State Trooper Greg Rayot sat in his patrol car in a driveway in rural Fulton County. He had a clear view of one of the more dangerous intersections in the county – State Rt. 64 and County Road K.

Late for class, a 24-year-old University of Toledo student driving a red convertible roared up to the stop sign at about 8:35 a.m. He tapped his brakes and shot straight through. There was a flash of red from his brake lights, and he was gone.

“Ah, here’s one,” Trooper Rayot said. The chase was on.

It took more than a mile and a lot of accelerator to catch up with the Chrysler LeBaron. When the trooper finally reached the car the student had a line of defense: “I yielded a little bit, didn’t I?”

Luckily, the only thing the car ran into was the line of sight of a state trooper. It’ll likely mean a $70 fine and a jump in his car insurance premium.

This year, many people like the UT student haven’t been as lucky. More drivers are gambling that they can roll through a stop sign, beat a train at a crossing, or accelerate quickly enough to turn from a side street into busy traffic.

This kind of aggressive driving is grouped under the term “failure to yield” – the biggest new problem on rural Ohio’s roads.

In northwest Ohio, rural fatal accidents are up 22 per cent this year over last. And fatal accidents caused by a failure-to-yield violation are up more than 40 per cent.

In the most recent accident, a father and two sons died Friday night on U.S. 24 in Defiance County when an Indianapolis-bound Greyhound bus slammed into the truck they were in. The truck was trying to make a quick left turn onto The Bend Road around 6:10 p.m., troopers said, and drove in front of the bus.

James Unger, 32; Cody Unger, 9; and Dustin Ungar, 15 months, were killed on impact. The driver of the truck, 21-year-old Dawn Unger, and passenger Jason Unger, 11, were in Parkview Hospital in Fort Wayne, Ind., last night. Dawn was in serious condition and Jason was listed in fair condition.

The Ohio Highway Patrol has classified the cause of the accident as a failure to yield.

Drivers in northwest Ohio are becoming more aggressive and more likely to take a gamble.

“In some ways, this is the new drunken driving,” said Lt. Dan Kolcum of the Ohio Highway Patrol. “Failure-to-yield accidents are where drunken driving accidents were 10, 15 years ago.”

For more than a decade, traffic safety advocates have had clear battles to fight – drunken driving and seat belt usage. After millions of dollars for education and countless volunteer hours, those efforts are starting to pay off.

In 1982, 57 per cent of America’s 45,800 fatal crashes were alcohol-related, and only 11 per cent of drivers and passengers used seat belts. By last year, alcohol-related crashes made up 41 per cent of fatal accidents, and 68 per cent of Americans were strapping on seat belts. Traffic fatalities nationwide dropped steadily throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Then in 1993 the trend reversed. Deaths on American roads started to increase again, with the numbers creeping skyward ever since. Last year, more than 41,000 Americans died on the road. In Ohio, 1,395 people died on the road last year. In Michigan, 1,505 died.

With alcohol-related crashes down and people wearing their seat belts, with the introduction of air bags and anti-lock brakes, why was the death count moving up?

The answer, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is aggressive driving.

An agency study earlier this year found that two-thirds of all traffic deaths could be blamed on aggression: drivers swerving through traffic to gain position, passing on the shoulder of interstates at 70 mph, or even intentionally crashing into other cars.

An April Gallup poll asked motorists what worried them most about driving on America’s roads. The traditional winner, drunken drivers, fell to second place behind aggressive drivers.

The problem has been crippling in northwest Ohio. Failure-to-yield crashes have accounted for about 23 per cent of fatal accidents in Ohio so far this year. In the state patrol’s district 1 – which covers a 12-county area from extreme northwest Ohio east to Toledo and south to Hardin County – that number is 44 per cent.

Consider three crashes on U.S. 20 in rural Fulton County in August:

* On Aug. 3, a northbound pickup truck failed to yield at the intersection at State Rt. 295 and U.S. 20 and slammed into a tractor-trailer rig. The driver of the pickup, Rory Williams, 27, of Belleview, Fla., was killed and six others were injured.

* At the same intersection on Aug. 18, a Toledo woman stopped at a stop sign, then pulled into traffic before she should have. She collided with a sport utility vehicle. The woman, Amanda Schehr, 20, and two others were injured, Ms. Schehr critically. She spent a week in St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center.

* On Aug. 14, a Bryan man turned left onto State Rt. 109 from U.S. 20 but didn’t turn fast enough and a tractor-trailer hit him. The man, Theodore Kirkpatrick, 48, was critically injured and spent 11 days in Medical College Hospital.

In each accident, the driver guessed he or she could make it in a tight spot and each time was wrong.

August followed an especially bloody July in northwest Ohio. In July, 1996, the state patrol handled only one traffic fatality in northwest Ohio. This July, 14 people died in accidents investigated by the state patrol.

Lieutenant Kolcum said the main cause of failure-to-yield accidents is simple – people in a hurry who take risks.

“The biggest key is driver impatience,” he said. “People are in a hurry to get from point A to point B, and a lot of people don’t realize the hazards.”

In Fulton County, for example, most failure-to-yield violators are local residents who know the often-empty roads well and may underestimate the possibility that they might be sharing the road that day, troopers said.

“They live here and they get overconfident. They think, ‘I know there’s not much traffic on this road,’” Trooper Rayot said.

Driver frustration also sometimes boils over and makes drivers do things they normally wouldn’t. The trigger can be anything from being cut off to sharing the road with a large truck.

“There’s a lot of simple rudeness involved in these accidents,” Lieutenant Kolcum said.

In some ways, northwest Ohio is the worst of all worlds when it comes to traffic safety. It includes Toledo, with its population of 322,550 and the stressful rush-hour traffic that comes with a big city. It has hundreds of miles of sparsely traveled rural roads that can make drivers complacent.

Interstates like I-80, I-90, and I-75 – moving traffic from Seattle to Boston, San Francisco to New York, and Detroit to Miami – crisscross the region. And then there are U.S. 24, State Rt. 2, and U.S. 6 that carry ever-increasing truck traffic to industrial plants throughout the area.

“Anywhere you go in the United States, you go through here,” Toledo Post Commander Lt. Fred Greive said. “That can increase the chance for trouble.”

In the 1980s, Americans heard that traffic on Los Angeles freeways was so bad, and drivers were so angry, that some of them were shooting at one another. Back then, it was news.

Now, it’s a national trend with a catchy name – “road rage.” News reports nationwide are splattered with tales of drivers chasing each other for miles as revenge for being cut off, or a honk of the horn being answered with a gunshot. It’s the angrier cousin of failure-to-yield collisions – drivers who are not only careless and anxious, but vengeful.

According to AAA, incidents of road rage have increased by about 7 per cent every year in the 1990s. And, since that study only included incidents where one driver did intentional harm to another, the totals for dangerously aggressive driving are likely much higher.

Those numbers hit close to home. In June, Ohio Patrol Sgt. James Kertesz got an early morning call to head to I-475, where a man had, at full speed, repeatedly rammed his vehicle into the rear of the car in front of him.

The reason?

He said a girl in the back seat of the car had given him the finger.

The man, Lawrence Liedell, 55, of Toledo, was arrested and charged with DUI and assault. The charges are pending.

Troopers at the Toledo post said there has been at least one other case of a vehicle ramming another this year in northwest Ohio. And on the night of July 12, troopers were called to Airport Highway where a man told them another motorist had taken a shot at him.

The man told troopers he had cut the other driver off in traffic on I-475. The man said the motorist then chased him and shot at him. No arrests have been made.

“That sort of thing used to happen very, very rarely. Now it happens more frequently,” Lieutenant Grieve said.

An increase in road rage goes hand-in-hand with increased failure-to-yield violations, Lieutenant Kolcum said. “Both are aggressive driving, aggressive, discourteous driving.”

There is a temptation to blame the increase in driver aggression on the values of society, to say that people are just getting meaner. But the rise of road rage comes at the same time that violent crime rates are dropping nationwide.

A more likely culprit, officials said, is that roads are just getting too crowded. In the last eight years, the number of highway miles driven each year in Ohio has increased 27 per cent. The number of cars on the road is up 15 per cent.

“The interstates are packed,” Lieutenant Kolcum said. “The number of licensed drivers and registered vehicles in Ohio has increased greatly, but we’re still using the infrastructure we designed years ago.” More crowded roads mean drivers are more likely to take risks – and more likely to react angrily if they don’t succeed.

“You’ve been at a stop sign for a few minutes, and the guys behind you are honking their horn,” Lieutenant Kolcum said. “So you say, ‘I don’t care, I’m going.’ You go, and boom.”

Combine less knowledgeable drivers, more crowded roadways, and an arguably more hectic society, and the results are clear: more screeching tires, more crashes, and more dead drivers.

“It’s a reflection of society,” Lieutenant Kolcum said. “People are pressed for time, and they’re saying, ‘I don’t care – I’m going now.’”

Recent history has shown that when the highway patrol cracks down on specific traffic problems, it can have some success.

Last year, U.S. 24 gained attention as a deadly trap after 10 people died on the highway between I-475 and the Indiana line.

In January, the state patrol, along with sheriff deputies and local police officers, began a special program to target dangerous drivers on U.S. 24, assigning troopers and officers to target speeders and stopping trucks suspected of violations.

Six months into the project, crashes on U.S. 24 dropped 21 per cent. Fatal accidents were cut in half. By the end of August, more than 5,000 tickets had been written as part of the effort.

District 1 is attempting to do the same with failure-to-yield violations. Every state patrol post in the district has been asked to determine the most dangerous intersections in its area and to put troopers on stationary patrol there during peak trouble times.

Starting Sept. 1, troopers were assigned at 13 of the most dangerous intersections in Fulton County every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday morning and afternoon – the times the patrol has identified as the worst for failure-to-yield violations.

Trooper Rayot was at one of those intersections when he caught the UT student running a stop sign. Along with catching violators, he hopes the added visibility of troopers will make a difference. “Maybe if they see us, they’ll watch their P’s and Q’s a little more closely,” he said.