ODOT's strategy for decreasing wrong-way crashes includes a variety of tactics

Wrong-way crashes declining, but continue to ruin lives
Posted: 6:39 PM, Nov 26, 2019
Updated: 2019-12-09 15:46:01-05

From $30 signs to $30,000 detection systems, the Ohio Department of Transportation has, in recent years, been exploring and implementing every viable option to reduce the number of wrong-way crashes across the state. Although typically accounting for less than 1 percent of all crashes across Ohio each year, wrong-way crashes disproportionately cause serious or fatal injuries a majority of the time, leaving victims with lifelong physical and emotional scars.

Life changes in an instant

March 2, 2012 follows Kayla Somoles like a shadow. That night. That image. That spot. That sound. And then, that silence.

It is an unwanted but undeterred guest. It greets her when the garage door opens. It waves to her in a passing car. It lives in the space between highway lines. It can be found on every avenue and boulevard and desolate divided highway between Cleveland and Houston. It is everywhere and nowhere.

The violent, head-on crash on Interstate 75 near Bowling Green State University on a pitch-black night is the reason for her scars, both seen and unseen.

“I’m reminded daily when I wake up and look at my arm and I look at my face,” Somoles said. “I have my moments. It does suck but am I grateful to be alive? Absolutely.”

What was supposed to be sun and sand in a foreign country turned into flashing lights and shattered glass in rural Ohio. 

“I have my moments. It does suck but am I grateful to be alive? Absolutely.”

Somoles and several of her sorority sisters at Bowling Green had grand plans for Spring Break 2012. It was Somoles’ first Spring Break trip. She and her friends hurriedly left in the still of night to drive to Detroit in order to catch a red-eye flight to the Dominican Republic. The group, spread across two vehicles, entered Interstate 75 and kept driving. One mile passed. Then two and three and four and five.

In a separate world, 69-year-old Winifred Lein was driving, too. The longtime employee of a sub-contractor at the nearby auto plant had just clocked out. Her co-workers would tell state troopers nothing seemed amiss with Lein. Nothing abnormal. Nothing atypical. Nothing notable. For reasons only known to a deity or the universe, she drove on Interstate 75 the wrong way: southbound in the northbound lanes. She missed the ‘wrong way’ signs and the pairs of headlights beaming toward her. She missed the state trooper that tried to intervene. She missed the corrosive feeling in the pit of her stomach that something didn’t seem right. Her intuition misfired. 

Lein kept driving. One mile passed. Then two. Then three and four and five and six and seven.

It was a broad turn with a blind slope. A bridge over Devil’s Hole Road. Lein’s engine, churning and burning through molecule after molecule of gasoline, propelled the life of the 69-year-old factory worker into the path of 10 teens and twenty-somethings. 

One car carrying the sorority sisters swerved. The other did not.

The impact – the permanent welding of those 11 lives in a chance encounter on a lonely stretch of interstate – was beyond violent. The collision of two unstoppable forces pierced the night like an arrow. The sound reverberated. No crumple zone or airbag could prevent the trauma. The cars became accordions. It was grim. Grisly. Gruesome.

Lein’s vehicle burst into flames. The fire consumed the engine bay, turning the cylinders, gaskets, filters and fluid into an inferno. Despite the efforts of state troopers, the fire reignited again and again.

The highway became a trauma center. Latex gloves and gauze wrappers littered the lanes like confetti. Then came a white sheet. Another one followed.

“In the dash camera video, you hear someone screaming. That was me,” Somoles said. “My friends in the other car, they had to see all of this happen. They saw the girls getting pulled out of the car and white-sheeted. Angelica and my friend Rebecca got life-flighted. I got put in an ambulance.”

Sophomore Christina Goyett, the driver of the car carrying the sorority sisters, died at the scene. Sarah Hammond, 21, was seated next to her in the passenger seat. She died at the scene, too. Both girls were wearing their seatbelts. A helicopter rushed Rebekah Blakkolb, 20, of Aurora, to the hospital. She flat-lined later that night.

Toxicology results came back negative for both Goyett and Lein.

Somoles and her friend, Angelica Mormile, 19, suffered serious injuries. The wounds and scars and broken bones and post-traumatic stress affixed to the young women like a leech, siphoning off their early twenties – the golden years before their golden years. 

The word “recover” is a verb, a class of words used to express action. For Somoles, that action never ends; her recovery is perpetual. She will never know why Lein drove the wrong way. 

She will never even know what Lein looked like.

One wrong-way crash is one too many

Wrong-way crashes typically account for one-hundredth of one percent (0.01%) of all crashes across Ohio. They are the proverbial needle in a state-wide haystack.

“It’s a problem we take very seriously but it’s not something that is happening every day in the state of Ohio,” said ODOT spokesman Matt Bruning. “That’s the good news. But, again, we’d like this to be zero. We have way too many.”

In 2016, Bruning said ODOT began aggressively tracking, documenting and cataloging data from wrong-way crashes across the state. Prior to the new focus, the state had been collecting only cursory data. Bruning said the data proved to ODOT that more could be – and should be – done.

However, as is the case nationally, drivers who cause wrong-way crashes are oftentimes intoxicated. Combating wrong-way drivers often turns into combating drunk drivers.

Over 10,000 OVI-related crashes have happened in Ohio so far in 2019. This map shows where and when they occurred.

“We’ve done a lot of things around the state of Ohio to try to catch the attention of these impaired drivers. We’ve put up additional signage. We’ve put signage lower to the ground so we can catch their attention since impaired drivers tend to look downward,” Bruning said. “We’ve put additional striping. We’ve put additional signage. We’ve put reflectors that reflect back red to you when you get on the highway the wrong way.”

The additional striping and signage make the highway look like a runway, making plainly obvious that a driver is going the wrong way. The improvements have been implemented in at least 17 counties, officials said.

In addition to the cost-effective options, ODOT has implemented several pilot projects that utilize radar and advanced cameras to detect wrong-way drivers and alert local law enforcement. In November 2018, ODOT installed a wrong-way driver detection system on the Shoreway near the West 28th St. exit. The system went online in December.

When a wrong-way driver enters the exit ramp, the detection system will instantly notify Cleveland police, buying patrol officers time to possibly intercept the erroneous driver. According to data provided by Cleveland police, the detection system has been triggered by wrong-way drivers a total of 12 times since mid-January. In 9 of those incidents, the wrong-way driver backed up and no longer drove the wrong way.

“It is doing exactly what we want it to do. I don’t believe we have had any crashes near where that area is since that detection system has been put into place,” Bruning said. “The issue for us is not so much what to do it’s where to do it. There are 5,209 ramps on our system in the state of Ohio. You obviously couldn’t outfit every single one of those ramps. It would be an extremely expensive endeavor.”

In the three instances in which the driver continued going the wrong way, it is unknown where they exited. There were no wrong-way crashes on those dates.

The detection system ODOT implemented cost the state more than $10,000. Outfitting every ramp in the state with such technology would cost taxpayers more than $100 million. The proposition of doing so isn’t being considered, Bruning said. Instead, the state is focusing its efforts on areas that feature a higher occurrence of drunk drivers and wrong-way drivers.

“There is no way to gauge the crashes that don’t happen because someone sees all of that and turns around. We just don’t have a way to capture that data,” Bruning said. “We don’t have a camera there that alerts us to someone that has tripped the system and turned around. We certainly know that when you look over the last several years the number of wrong way crashes has come down in some cases significantly in the state of Ohio.”

Since a spike in the number of wrong-way crashes between 2013 and 2015, the number of wrong-way crashes has dropped significantly. In 2016, there were 30 wrong-way crashes resulting in 18 deaths. In 2017 and 2018, there were 27 wrong-way crashes resulting in 16 and 15 deaths respectively. According to state statistics, there have been 316 wrong-way crashes statewide since 2013, compared to the nearly two million total crashes in the same time period. The time of day that features the highest occurrence of wrong-way crashes is between midnight and 3am – the same time frame of Somoles’ crash.

Made with Flourish
ODOT data shows a spike in wrong-way crashes between 2013 and 2015.

Since this graphic was created, there were two more fatal wrong-way crashes in Ohio resulting in seven fatalities.

Despite the notoriety and high-profile nature of wrong way crashes, they are between 0.01% and 0.03% of the total crashes statewide every year. Although rare, the crashes disproportionately account for almost 2% of traffic fatalities annually.

Alcohol is a factor in many of the wrong-way crashes across the country but not in Somoles’ case. Toxicology results were negative and a lengthy OSHP investigation could not determine why Lein drove the wrong way.

“When I first found out in the hospital, I was angry. I was very upset. This didn’t just change my life, this changed many lives” family members, friends, people who passed away. It was a lot,” Somoles said. “Now, me personally, I don’t sit there and think ‘what if?’ It happened. I wish it didn’t. I wish everything didn’t but I can’t sit here and drive myself crazy about it. I don’t even know what the woman looked like.”

Although ODOT has embraced technology like the wrong-way detection systems, many others wonder if even more could be done. The idea has been floated before that mobile GPS apps could alert a driver going the wrong way or, perhaps, alert other drivers of a wrong-way motorist.

In 2012, the NTSB urged global automakers and consumer electronics associations to come up with industry-wide standards that would bring wrong-way driving alerts to GPS units. Industry groups responded, saying more research needs to be done and that a consensus standard would be premature. Others have proposed having alerts transmitted to digital message boards that span over highways. While ODOT is exploring the idea, as are other states, such a proposal may be ineffective. 

"Anything that can help reduce the risk of these crashes is something we’ll look at and consider.”

“The biggest challenge, honestly, is that the vast majority of people that are involved in these wrong way crashes are not on the highway very long. By the time we would get the notification that they have entered the highway in the wrong direction, put it on the message board, in many cases the crash would have already happened,” Bruning said. “There is really going to be two ways we are going to address this problem and hopefully solve it. That’s either going to be through driver behavior modification or technology. It’s probably going to be a combination of both. Anything that can help reduce the risk of these crashes is something we’ll look at and consider.”

Emotional and physical scars still linger

After the crash, Somoles spent weeks in intensive care. The weeks then turned to months before she was transferred to a different facility to undergo therapy.

Somoles broke every bone in her face. One part of her jaw was broken in more than a dozen places. The other part was completely shattered. She had broken ribs and broken toes. Deep cuts coursed across her knee and foot. Through grace and fate and luck alone, she did not suffer any brain or spinal cord injuries.

“It’s just amazing for me to break as many things as I did in my face and not have a brain injury. That was the longest part of my recovery, my face,” Somoles said. “How I looked afterward, I would say that was the hardest thing to deal with.”

"Having the scars on my body, I’m never ashamed of them. Those are literally battle scars."

Endontologists pieced together her teeth and jaw like a surgically-completed puzzle. The puzzle, however, is never permanently set. Somoles frequently has to undergo root canals. Another day. Another surgery. Another reminder. The hallmarks of that night in 2012 are everywhere. Like a beach at high tide, her anxiety swells at night. 

In her Houston-area apartment, Somoles doesn’t hang photos of herself that were taken prior to March 3, 2012. There is no point thinking or pondering or contemplating her life before that date. The past is never far but, right now, it’s far enough.

“I can never imagine my life without it. Having the scars on my body, I’m never ashamed of them. Those are literally battle scars. It tells a story about overcoming something,” Somoles said. “It’s always interesting when people just know you as you are, they take it as it is. This is Kayla. I’ve grown into that. Yes, this is me.”

Now in her sixth year of teaching, Somoles incorporates her harrowing tale into her lesson plans. She’s an open book, using her story to show her students the pitfalls of judging people and the importance of cherishing each day that is provided.

That night on a desolate strip of asphalt doesn’t define her. However, it will always be a part of her.

“I just try to live a normal life,” Somoles said.