CLEVELAND — Despite decreases in traffic count because of the pandemic, 2020 brought significant increases to the number of fatal traffic crashes and fatalities, with more than 1,200 deaths on Ohio roads last year. This year, however, is on pace to shatter 2020's totals as nearly 100 more people have been killed compared to this point last year and each one of those crashes leaves indescribable grief in its wake.
As of May 4, a total of 376 people have been killed in traffic crashes statewide, a 30% increase over the 288 fatalities through May 4, 2020, according to data provided by the Ohio State Highway Patrol. All but three counties in Northeast Ohio have reported more traffic fatalities year-to-date than the same point last year.
According to state data, there were 1,152 fatal crashes statewide in 2020, which accounted for the highest total in at least five years. More than 1,200 people died in those crashes, the highest total in more than a decade.
"We talk about numbers and we talk about fatal crashes as a statistic. But what we really need to take a look at is that these were lives that were lost. Each one represents a family that now has to deal with this tragedy," said OSP Sgt. Ray Santiago. "The state is at 376 traffic fatalities [this year]. Those are 376 death notifications that were made to loved ones. Their lives are never going to be the same. To be honest with you, from personal experience, I know each one of those [death notifications] that I had to make changed my life."
More than 1,300 days have passed since September 25, 2017. But for Rowena Hockett, each one is no easier than the first.
"I am not going to say that it won't get easier but it is still painful to talk about," Hockett said.
Around midday on Sept. 25, 2017, Hockett's daughter, Sade Robinson, was pushing her son, Troy, in his stroller near the driveway of their apartment building in the 1900 block of Green Road near Euclid Avenue. Troy, Hockett's grandson, was two months shy of his second birthday.
With a beaming smile and penchant for laughter, Troy already had his grandmother wrapped around his finger.
"He melted my heart. He was my pride and joy," Hockett said.
As he sat in the stroller and his mother guiding it along on the sidewalk, David Fortney was seated in a utility truck that was traveling down Green Road. Fortney, for reasons unknown, veered off the roadway, striking Hockett's daughter and grandson.
Troy was pronounced dead at the scene. Robinson was rushed to University Hospitals with several broken bones. When she arrived at the emergency room, Robinson had blood, leaves and twigs in her hair. The impact of the crash had launched her into a nearby bush. Hockett said it's something that is forever burned into her memory.
"I found out my grandson was gone, which was hard," Hockett said, fighting back tears. "And then [Robinson] was told that he was gone. As a mother, having to endure that pain and see your child like that and not really having a way to help her or console her or do anything... it hurts."
Although witnesses insisted that Fortney was speeding at the time of the crash, he later told police that he wasn't, according to court records. Fortney was later charged with vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced to 60 days in jail.
Whatever the reason for the crash, Sgt. Santiago said driving-related deaths have become far too common in Ohio, despite increased traffic enforcement. Last month, troopers in Northeast Ohio issued 400 distracted driving citations, a massive increase.
"This affects people in so many ways. A simple decision to just put the phone down and buckle up can save folks from a lot of grief," Sgt. Santiago said. "[The increase in traffic fatalities] is not due to a lack of effort. We're seeing enforcement numbers increase in areas that we haven't seen before."
While still as raw as they were on day one, Hockett's emotions have been channeled into advocacy for additional traffic safety measures to be installed in the area where her grandson was killed. The 1900 block of Green Road cuts through a dense residential area, with Grandview Pointe Apartments on the east side and a neighborhood on the west side. People frequently walk on the sidewalks near the winding road, which features a blind turn as drivers near Euclid Avenue.
In the years following the crash, a crosswalk near Grandview Pointe was added, along with flashing yellow lights alerting drivers in both directions to pedestrians. However, because the trees in the area haven't been pruned in recent years, the flashing lights are almost entirely obscured.
Hockett frequently contacts city hall and her councilmember, Anthony Hairston, pleading for additional safety measures to be implemented.
"It's just been a painful process. I'm still angry that my grandson was taken away from me as early as he was. The city needs to do better. They have to," Hockett said. “For me to have to go through this, I shouldn't have to. I shouldn't have to continuously have to do things. I know there is a process but the process shouldn't take three years.”
Hockett firmly believes that a stop sign should be added near the crosswalk as drivers prepare to enter or exit the blind turn and steep hill. Additionally, the speed limit in the area — 35 miles per hour — needs to be reduced to 25 miles per hour, she said.
Hockett said she will continue to put pressureon the city.
“I don't live over there anymore but I'm still seeking safety precautions to be put into place,” Hockett said. “I don't want anybody else to endure the pain that my family has had to endure with losing someone in their family.”