Turnpike needs a better plan

Register
Dec 11, 2013

Todd Franko is the former managing editor at the Sandusky Register and was on the Ohio Turnpike on Thanksgiving night when two people were killed in a crash. This column originally appeared in the Youngstown Vindicator, his current newspaper.

Thanksgiving evening was a horrible scene on the Ohio Turnpike.

A Kent man’s reckless driving at speeds in excess of 120 mph came to a fiery and fatal end between Sandusky and Toledo.

And in the worst of scenarios, the fatalities were two people from Toledo who were innocent victims of the other driver, 24-year-old Andrew Gans.

Gans survived, and is now in Sandusky County Jail on a $1 million bond, facing two counts of aggravated vehicular homicide.

I had the fortune and misfortune of being part of the scene.

Fortune in that, about 15 minutes before the accident, Gans flew by me. I was driving almost 80 mph, and out of nowhere in my mirror came Gans. He was gone as quickly as he came. So fast, I could not make out the type of car. When he passed, my car shook in his wake.

A trooper passed me several minutes later — but nowhere close to the speed of Gans. A few minutes later, traffic ground to a halt just west of the Fremont exit. Gans covered 62 miles in 26 minutes, troopers said.

The trooper lights were distinct from the fiery orange of the van fire. More rescue lights would come past me as about 15-20 response vehicles sped along the inside and outside shoulders of I-80 headed to the scene.

Read more of Todd Franko's columns from the Youngstown Vindicator HERE

About 2 miles of drivers sat parked on the turnpike. Based on the number of people evident in my 10th-of-a-mile neighborhood out there, I have guessed about 2,000 people total; could’ve been 3,000; could’ve been 1,000.

We. Sat. With. Nothing. For four hours. That’s where the misfortune begins.

Now before you rise up with a “How dare you, there were fatalities and you weren’t one of them,” please note that:

A) I am grateful to have not been a fatal statistic and recognize that, had I been in the left lane instead of the middle, I could have been.

B) I recognize that tending to the accident was first priority. All rescue vehicles were on scene in the first 45 minutes. For the next 3 hours and 15 minutes, the road shoulders were absent of rescue vehicles.

When you trap 2,000 or so people for too long of a period, two things are certain:

Some of them in time will become their own casualty for health reasons.

Some will take matters into their own hands.

Both happened.

Nothing on the websites of the turnpike or the Ohio State Highway Patrol offered any advisement to those of us stuck. The turnpike site did warn oncoming westbound traffic that they were being redirected at Ohio 4.

While most of us managed fine, would you want your teen son or elderly mom stuck in such a situation — especially when there were options? That’s where I enjoyed some healthy debate this week with turnpike, OSHP and other state officials.

I’m not quite sure the turnpike folks were receptive.

But I’m emboldened by histories such as airlines once thinking little about stranding passengers on tarmacs for hours; the NFL never believing it had a concussion problem; law enforcement never thinking you could mobilize masses when children were kidnapped; and stadiums never pondering ending alcohol sales before the game ended.

You think about better ways to exist when you’re absolutely powerless to do anything about your situation — which we were.

That night, a handful of us would get out of our cars every 30 minutes or so and share our latest info from radio, tweets or websites. What was clear to us was that we could not go forward, and we accepted that: It’s a horrific human loss that is also a crime scene.

What we could not understand was the lack of a plan to reverse us and allow us to exit just one mile backward to the Fremont exit. We could see it; we could hear it; it was a perfectly clear 40-degree night; we just had no one allowing us to go there.

Turnpike boss Rick Hodges was quick to return my call this week, and was polite in our differences of opinion, which for me came down to two key points:

2,000 of us were left with no indication as to our fate. How long would we be there? Two hours? Four hours? Six hours?

The turnpike has a website, a Facebook page and huge trucks with huge signboards that can land Captain Kirk. Yet no attempt was made to communicate to the people they essentially had complete control over.

In Boston last spring, city residents were in a panic as the bombing brothers sped through town and had a shootout with police. When it was finally over, police sensed the need to let people know immediately it was over, and they Tweeted the news instantly, and a city breathed.

The Fremont exit was right there for all of us. Three hours earlier, the shoulders were viable enough for firetrucks, ambulances and more to access the accident. They could have been perfect routes to reverse drivers out of there, too.

Our group looked at the exit frequently, and pondered a plan. But as I told many people this week, none of us wanted to be “that guy.” I kept thinking: “It’s so easy, a turnpike crew will show up any minute.” They never did.

Hodges said it’s a safety issue, that it’s better to just lock everyone down to ensure there aren’t more casualties.

Some of the 2,000 became casualties.

Halfway into the third hour of our stay, two ambulances came barreling down the shoulder. They stopped at a car in front of me where a guy was having a diabetic issue. He got hauled away in one ambulance.

People were relieving themselves all about the highway (easier for the men; not so easy for the ladies). Cars ran out of gas or killed their batteries as they ran them frequently for heat.

One friend who was stuck half a mile behind me was among a group who U-turned in the barrier split and headed down the eastbound lanes. Turnpike officials closed that off.

Several drivers drove the wrong way down the shoulder. One guy drove by me in reverse along the shoulder.

I told Hodges that if navigating traffic in that tight an area is so dangerous, which Hodges explained, how does America fill about 80 stadiums every Saturday and Sunday in September with either baseball or football fans — some drunk, some banner-waving, all of them pre-occupied — and it’s generally deemed safe and normal. The turnpike was a stadium parking lot, essentially.

Our group devised that a team of 10 brightly dressed and well-lit staffers, slicing the traffic a 10th of a mile at a time, starting closest to the exit, could have emptied the 2 miles in short time. We accepted that not all drivers would want to leave the road, and semis might not have the flexibility.

When I suggested this to Hodges’ colleague, the first justification was: You can’t send people who are from all over the Midwest off onto dark country roads.

But that’s precisely what was happening one exit back where they were diverting traffic.

A trooper said reversing traffic is unheard of. I hope he can encounter a state senator this week who did just such a thing on the Indiana Toll Road a few years back with state patrol guidance.

I was sent some materials about turnpike safety procedures, and none of them address how to deal with drivers in situations like Thanksgiving evening.

That is one of the consistencies of my conversations with various officials: This was an unprecedented closure.

It’s now a precedent. Hopefully there is a better plan next time that is suitable for great weather like that night, and horrible weather like Friday night.

Find a way to safely move 2,000 or so people along — even if you need training from the Ohio State stadium crew.

Or at least communicate to drivers their fate and ensure the most vulnerable out there know they’re being protected.

Doing nothing was a decision, and many of us out there disagreed with it.

I guess the NFL once disagreed that it had a concussion problem, too.

Comments

samiam

Typical bureaucracy...stick their heads in the sand. If I can't see the problem, it doesn't exist. Perhaps you should send your idea to the governor or to the head of the Highway Patrol. It sounded pretty practical to me, not too expensive and easy to execute.

crazyaide

Better yet go apply to the turnpike and show them how to do thier job better.

White Owl

Moderators have removed this comment because it contained Off-topic comments.

ohioengineer

First of all, why were you driving 80 mph? And you admit it like a badge of honor, while by driving this speed you were also putting drivers at risk. Oh, I know, you are a "great" driver and can "manage these speeds," while the rest of us idiots had better just get out of your way. In actuality you should be ashamed of yourself for flagranly violating the law in this regard.
As far as being inconvenienced by having to wait while first responders tried to save a few lives, GET OVER IT. Life is not fair in this broken world in which we live. It certainly wasn't fair for the innocent people whose lives were forever impacted by this event and, heaven forbid, it certainly wasn't fair for those of you who got stuck waiting. But your response to this event is exactly what is wrong with the media today: rather than focusing on the real issue, you find it easier to whine about the inconvenience that you suffered. As a media leader (and I use the term with a lot of tongue in cheek)you should be leading the effort to determine why and how the individual responsible for this tragic event was allowed to do so. instead you take the easy way out and complain about how your life was inconvenienced. Shame on you and your profession.

JFDoering

I respectfully disagree, ohioengineer. I have 34 years of experience in the fire service and EMS, in a service area that included busy stretches of Interstate highways and interchanges. A two-vehicle wreck does not require four hours to save lives. The essential work was done in much less time than that.
What tends to happen is the investigation brings in specialists, which takes time. Once the road is closed before the traffic stoppage, the folks at the scene no longer feel threatened by the very real danger of moving traffic. That is all well and good; however, the needs of those on the road should be heeded. One lane or shoulder should be used to empty the highway. If not, then the inside passing lane of the other direction should be blocked off so folks can be directed through the crossover.
It is also true that some of the large vehicles will be stuck for the duration if there is not a safe way for them to move. As you said, life is not fair.

The Ohio Turnpike normally gets my kudos for doing a great job with traffic and road conditions. This article points out their weak suit, which they should correct rather than make lame excuses.

Nemesis

Get off your bluenosed high horse; 80 mph is a safe speed on the turnpike, which was designed for and posted at 70mph back in the days of drum brakes, bias ply tires, and solid rear axles. There are places in the industrialized world where people can legally go much faster, because they have meaningful testing to get a drivers' license.

As for your response to the rest of the column, I doubt the diabetic considered medical problems requiring ambulance evacuation to be a mere "inconvenience" and neither did someone else who might have a medical emergency while the county's last ambulance was handling that entirely preventable medical problem. There's no good reason not to try and improve the handling of traffic after an accident.

2cents

"Turnpike officials closed that off."

That was a mistake, thank you for the article Todd, I have been in these situations before, I too was westbound on the Turnpike that night but got off on RT57 to visit my mom, it was 6:50PM and he was just behind me.

If there is a stoppage and I am in it, I call the police and tell them they better start shedding people off the exit just before our stoppage. Most of the time they do not think of that right away, the traffic piles up and most officers race to the accident. I hope the police and others read this and come up with some contingency plans. Not wanting to send people off an exit is not the choice of officials, big brother should not be trying to protect people that much, these drivers are adult and if they are afraid then they can pull to the side and sit tight. After all most people traveling cross country have a GPS, most of these units have a "detour" setting, I used mine yesterday while traveling down Lear Nagle Road south of Avon, Oops, road closed and she sent me to another road around the closure.

Contango

Privatize it.

2cents

I disagree on this one C, I travel that road every day and do believe that they do a great job in general. The OSP does their job as well without being too in your face unless you are driving like a jerk. I do not like the idea of them taking funds from the Turnpike tolls for other projects though.

Contango

Re: "they do a great job in general."

A bloated bureaucracy with an unnecessarily highly-compensated workforce.

In IL, the public toll way system is a campaign slush fund for politicians. Hard to imagine it's much different in OH.

Privatizing is one step removed from malfeasance.

Also, few remember the initial or see the continuing economic devastation that the OTP has had and continues to have on small communities that used to rely on East-West traffic on roads like Rt. 20, et al.

But that's ANOTHER story.

Not to worry, socialism and public ownership is all in vogue.

Just wait until that publicly funded high speed rail system gets built and the OTP is a distant memory. :)

KnuckleDragger

Re: "Just wait.."
You mean the 50 mph train to nowhere? LOL

Contango

Re: "train"

But..but, it's a "green" project and we gotta save the polar bears right?

Meanwhile: Lowest temp. EVER recorded on Earth recently occured.

http://www.usatoday.com/story/we...

JFDoering

58 years after the Turnpike opened and someone is still complaining about less traffic on Route 20? Seriously? This must be Fred Deering reincarnated.

Contango

Re: "less traffic on Route 20?"

FACT: The socio-economic unintended consequences continue.

2cents

"continuing economic devastation"
That was some of Huron's complaint with the bypass. My best friend living in Chaska Beach could not keep his music albums from skipping every night with all the truck traffic on RT 6 just outside his back yard. Now that their is a bypass the housing market exploded because people want to live in a sleepy town, not on a truck route!

Contango

Re: "sleepy town,

I.E., a bedroom community where the residents pay the majority of the taxes. Understood.

Referring to: Norwalk, Monroeville, Bellevue & others; land where industry and jobs have been long forgotten.

They too are increasingly becoming "bedroom communities."

Residents of Norwalk used to b*tch about truck traffic in downtown.

Then in the mid-60s they put in a bypass.

Little to no truck traffic and it also helped the world to pass the city by.

Damn those unintended consequences!

2cents

C, there are many other factors and opportunities that cities may not see. The day of having a port or railroad stop are no longer the norm to draw people to a city. Excessive road traffic drives many away, for instance all the locals stay away from SR250 at peak times of CP traffic. Take Huron for instance, I have friends that live there and commute to Cleveland for work, it takes as long to drive there from Huron as it does to drive from the east side to the west side of Cleveland. The current and the future is technology. For example, I was driving north from Louisville and wanted some good coffee. I used my GPS and scrolled down to food, then, coffee's and donuts and let it update as I drove. It displayed a Starbucks three miles ahead so I touched the screen for it to take me there. It was far from obvious because it took me down a road, into a small plaza and there sat the Starbucks. It was only in direct site to locals and not highway drivers. Ill stick with sleepy, I am only 1 hour from downtown Cleveland or Toledo for the arts, museums, concerts and other things : )

Nemesis

Who says they're unintended? Bedroom communities are nice places to live. Sure the residents pay the taxes, but it's not a problem as long as you have a demographic that can take care of themselves rather than needing city hall to wipe their nose for them. Commerce and industry are great, but at the end of the day people want to leave them behind, and they'll go to some lengths to do so.

observer1

Great article. I'm surprised a trooper said reversing traffic is unheard of. During hurricane evacuations, that's exactly what they do. Traffic reversal is also used during and after major sporting events, such as the NASCAR race in Michigan. It's not rocket science and it's done frequently. This article just makes too much sense.

Hopperthe2nd

Many large cities that handle thousands of autos and trucks per day have REVERSABLE LANES, it's not rocket science.

2cents

Sandusky does it all summer long on Butler Street!

Fireside

15 to 20 response vehicles? WOW....