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  • Writer's pictureDean T. Johnson

Driver Conditioning: The Underlying Cause of Nearly All Vehicular Crashes

On October 5, 2002, Sandy Johnson and her mother Jackie approached the final destination of their short road trip. With one intersection separating them from their journey’s end, Sandy watched as a vehicle with its left-turn signal flashing approached from her right. As expected, the driver stopped short of the intersection, yielding the right-of-way to her. With no other vehicles waiting to cross, Sandy lightly pushed down on the accelerator and entered the intersection.

The intersection shortly after Sandy Johnson's car was struck by a southbound SUV.

Unknown to her at that moment, Sandy was making a mistake…a mistake that would cost her and her mother their lives. As the front of Sandy’s car crossed the center of that crossroad, it was struck by a southbound SUV traveling approximately 55 mph. (The sudden impact crushed Sandy’s body as the grill of the encroaching vehicle slammed into the left side of her head. Sandy was killed instantly as her mother drew her last breath.) [or] (, killing Sandy instantly as her mother drew her last breath.)

As tragic as that event was, that remote intersection held within its history an even greater tragedy. Fifteen years earlier, that specific location was experiencing a disproportionately high number of crashes, prompting the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) to conduct a site study after the second year. Without engineering deficiencies being identified, no modifications were made. But that was only the beginning. Over a 13-year period, as the high number of crashes continued, a total of six studies would be conducted. Concurrent with that timeframe, the danger at that intersection grew with each passing year.

One of the studies conducted by ODOT recommended a costly modification in order to lessen the number of crashes at the site. But since an actual cause for the disproportionately high number of crashes had not been accurately identified, the modification of lowering the elevation of the highway on the southbound approach to the intersection proved to make the intersection even more dangerous. At the time of Sandy’s crash, it had earned a ranking of the eighth most dangerous intersection in the state.

Most people don’t give highway fatalities any thought at all until it touches them. Sandy’s husband Dean was one of those people, until it touched him.

Within the first few hours of learning Sandy’s death, Dean contacted the patrolman in charge of the crash scene and set an appointment to meet with him at the site. Exactly 24 hours to the minute after his wife’s death, Dean was standing with Trooper Lee at the deadly intersection. The purpose of the meeting was to learn the cause of the crash—what caused a safe driver like Sandy to die in a car crash, especially one she had apparently caused.

Sandy Johnson's car after the crash.

Over the next 20 minutes, while standing near the intersection and asking questions that seemed to have no answers, Dean witnessed three crashes being narrowly avoided. Attempting to find some resolution to the apparent confusion taking place he asked the patrolman, “What is wrong with this intersection?” The trooper responded with this statement: “I don’t know, but we’ve been trying to get ODOT to fix it for years. There have been a lot of accidents here, and other people have died.” That reply prompted the beginning of Dean’s journey to learn what was wrong with the intersection, and get it fixed.

Just two days after Sandy’s funeral, that quest began. Starting with the intersection, Dean studied the site itself. But rather than look for engineering deficiencies that, according to ODOT didn’t exist, Dean looked for things that seemed out of place, or confusing. Although he found some things to be lacking from his perspective, nothing seemed out of place or confusing.

He next began an interviewing process that included law enforcement and EMT personnel familiar with the crash site. Again, he fell short of learning anything more than what he already knew; the intersection was dangerous.

Having reviewed the six previous site studies, recent accident reports and other crash data, Dean noticed a pattern—it seemed that nearly all of the crashes were caused by eastbound drivers. Intrigued, he drove the route his wife and other at-fault drivers had taken a second time. But this time, he evaluated the route. Could it be possible that the roadway itself was contributing to the crashes? Surprisingly, Dean identified a possible cause to the crashes but his suspicions needed to be corroborated. Ironically, due to a series of unanticipated events, he was able to interview other drivers who had been involved in crashes at that site. What he learned would surprise even the most ardent highway safety advocate.

Conditioning! Conditioning was the underlying cause of Sandy’s crash. A short review of the traffic pattern leading to the site should explain this phenomenon.

Most drivers traveling to the deadly intersection from the west passed through a minimum of 11 intersections. Each one was controlled by a full traffic light or was a four-way stop. Intersection number 12 looked like a four-way stop, but it wasn’t.

Most of us are familiar with the saying, “Perception is reality!” In this case, that phrase applies. Drivers approaching from the west had a clear view of the intersection for at least 300 yards during their approach. In that time, motorists unfamiliar with the area viewed an intersection that appeared to resemble the others they had passed through. Recognizing it as another four-way stop, drivers were simply pulling up to the intersection, visually observing no other waiting vehicles, then proceeding forward. For many, like Sandy, that was the last mistake they ever made.

Armed with the understanding that conditioning was the underlying contributing factor to crashes at that site, Mr. Johnson developed a simple remedy. On December 3, 2002 he met with ODOT officials and, after explaining the cause behind the crashes that were taking place, submitted a recommendation for change. The following day, ODOT officials responded to his request and acknowledged a willingness to modify the intersection according to his recommendation. Nine days later, that modification was made. On that day, in less than four hours, and at a cost of under $4,000, 15 years of death, destruction, and life-changing injuries came to an abrupt end.

In Part Two, you will learn the rest of the story!

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