BROOK PARK, Ohio — The Brook Park Police Department continues to investigate a fatal crash overnight on I-71 South that killed a highway worker and seriously injured another. The driver of the other vehicle is in police custody after a colleague of the slain worker followed her to a shopping complex in nearby Middleburg Heights and alerted police.
The highway worker, 61-year-old Rafael Solis, was part of a line-painting crew working for TraffTech Inc., a Cleveland-based company that also lost a valued employee in May after he was killed in a hit-skip in University Heights.
According to Brook Park Police Chief Thomas Dickel, the construction crew was re-striping the highway on I-71 South near the Snow Road exit when the unidentified driver plowed into them. There are multiple signs along I-71 and I-480 warning drivers of overnight lane closures and construction zones. Solis died at the scene, police said. Another highway worker, whose identity has not been released yet, remains at Metro Hospital with serious injuries.
In the moments after the crash, the driver of the other vehicle continued southbound on I-71 for roughly a mile before exiting onto Bagley Road in Middleburg Heights. The driver then pulled into a restaurant parking lot.
“As I understand it, the construction worker from the scene was able to follow [the other driver] and notify the neighboring community, Middleburg Heights,” said Chief Dickel. “They responded. We responded. We took her into custody.”
Chief Dickel said charges are pending and the driver could be arraigned Friday morning. The chief also said detectives are continuing to investigate whether drugs, alcohol or distracted driving were factors in the fatal crash.
Later in the day Thursday, ODOT confirmed Solis was employed by TraffTech Inc, a small firm that has done numerous projects for ODOT and local municipalities.
“Any time I wake up to tragic news like this, it’s just heartbreaking. It doesn’t matter to me if its a construction worker or an ODOT employee. We’re all one big family,” said Amanda McFarland, an ODOT spokesperson. “Our employees get to know the contractors and the contractors get to know our employees. It’s devastating. I hate hearing about stuff like this. Ohio has the Move Over Law for a reason."
The state law requires drivers to move over to an adjacent lane when approaching any vehicle with flashing or rotating lights parked on the roadside. It says drivers should slow down if moving over isn’t possible due to traffic, weather conditions or the lack of a second lane.
Solis is the second TraffTech Inc. employee to be killed in an apparent hit-skip this year. In late March, 54-year-old David Sollars was killed while re-striping a road near University Heights. Another worker was also seriously injured. The driver of the other vehicle, 64-year-old Wiley Bridgeman, was arrested and charged with aggravated vehicular homicide, vehicular homicide, aggravated vehicular assault and failure to stop after an accident, according to court documents.
In a pre-trial hearing in Bridgeman’s case earlier this year, nearly a dozen construction workers clad in their safety vests sat in the courtroom in a show of solidarity. Chances are none of them expected to have to do the same thing again so soon.
“I hate that it takes a reason like this to remind people of the Move Over Law,” McFarland said. “I wish when folks were traveling down the roadways and they see the people working behind those orange barrels that they remember that they are humans. They have families they want to go home to. What they are doing out there is their livelihood. It’s their job. It’s what they do to support their families.”
According to ODOT, four highway workers were killed while on the job site in 2018. This year’s numbers were not immediately available.
“In 2018, there were 200 ODOT crews struck across the state. These people — just trying to do to their jobs,” McFarland said. “As motorists, we have a responsibility to watch out for them and move over for them and slow down for them.”
Although crashes and fatalities involving highway workers continue to happen despite the Move Over Law, it isn’t for a lack of traffic enforcement. According to statistics provided to News 5 by Ohio State Highway Patrol, troopers have issued 389 Move Over Law violations this year.
That total is more than the number of violations issued in 2017 and 2018 combined. Since 2014, a total of 1045 Move Over Law violations have been issued, according to OSHP.
“Along with seat belts, distracted and impaired driving, we have been focusing attention on crash-causing violations such as move over and slow down laws,” said Lt. Rob Gable via email. “The Move Over / Slow Down law applies to all emergency workers as well as roadside maintenance crews. Whether the lights are blue, red, yellow, or green, the Ohio State Highway Patrol needs everyone to safely move over into the non-adjacent lane if possible and slow down if they are unable to move over when approaching stopped flashing lights. At the end of the day, we want everyone traveling the routes in Ohio to make it home, including those who serve our citizens along the roadsides.”