CUYAHOGA COUNTY, Ohio — An Ohio Department of Transportation pothole patching crew avoided injury early Monday morning after troopers said a distracted driver plowed into their equipment on I-480 westbound. In addition to increases in the number of state road crews being struck this year, state data shows Cuyahoga County again leading the state in the number of distracted driving-related crashes.
Transportation and state highway patrol officials said a male driver had reportedly briefly looked down at his phone before crashing into a piece of safety equipment around 1 a.m. Monday in the westbound lanes of I-480 near Lee Road. The driver plowed into a piece of special safety equipment called an impact attenuator, which is designed to absorb the force of impact, reducing the risk of injury both to the driver as well as the road crews working in front of it.
According to ODOT data, there have been at least 70 crashes so far this year involving road crews or equipment being struck. There were 154 such crashes in 2021. If the trend continues into the busy summer construction season, the state is on pace to nearly double 2021’s total.
“It’s kind of a scary thing thinking how many times it happened last year and how many times it has already happened this year,” said Isaac Hunt, a spokesperson for ODOT District 12. “A lot of those things are preventable. We see a lot of it time and time again, whether it is distracted driving or drunk driving. Those are two choices that people are making. It’s not an accident if you’re looking at your phone. That’s something that is preventable.”
Ohio State Highway Patrol Sgt. Ray Santiago said distracted driving has been the subject of increased enforcement in recent years, although state law still lists distracted driving as a secondary offense, meaning law enforcement needs a primary offense (speeding, improper lane change, etc) before initiating a traffic stop.
“There are all sorts of things to prevent people from driving distracted yet, unfortunately, we look at some of these statistics and over the past three years, Cuyahoga County is leading the state in distracted driving-related crashes,” Santiago said. “There have been nearly 2300 distracted driving-related crashes since 2020 just in Cuyahoga County. That is very alarming. This is not a statistic that you want to be a leader in, which is why we take it so seriously.”
According to state data, there have been 2272 distracted-driving-related crashes in Cuyahoga County from Jan. 1, 2020, through March 28, 2022.
Hamilton and Franklin counties have the next highest number of crashes.
For the past several years, the state highway patrol has been collecting and analyzing crash-related data to better inform how the agency deploys its resources. The troves of data, which include the dates, times and locations of traffic citations, crashes, traffic count and other items, can be accessed by troopers. Additionally, OSHP has created a public-facing website showing crash data statewide.
In its internal system, troopers can access ‘crash density’ heat maps, which highlight certain corridors that have a high number of distracted-driving-related crashes.
Santiago said the highway patrol has broadened its investigatory process to include distracted driving when crashes result in injury or fatalities. From January 1, 2020 through January 1, 2022, a total of 971 distracted driving citations have been issued in Cuyahoga County, according to preliminary state data.
However, distracted driving is often under-reported, Santiago said.
“These are just the ones that we know or during our investigations, we become aware of. We know this is well under-reported because folks don’t like to openly come out and say they were distracted,” Santiago said. “This data-driven approach, we’re able to put troopers in some of these higher density areas during the times that we see them happening and on what particular days so we can be more effective with our resources.”
Santiago said the sheer volume of data made available to the public is designed to be an educational tool to create awareness.
“We always want to change the behaviors and effect something like this through education and awareness versus through tragedy and having to make a death notification,” Santiago said.