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  • Writer's pictureDean T. Johnson

Ohio Department of Transportation Fails to Recognize Driver Conditioning at Motorist's Peril

"Are deaths okay in the eyes of Ohio highway officials? As long as the frequency of crashes remains low, why should there be change? Oh, I don’t know. Maybe to save one life at a time?"

Deaths are okay in the eyes of highway officials, unless there are too many at one location—which may trigger a public outcry—or a high-profile person is killed. But for us average folks, state and federal highway officials aren’t too concerned about a death now-and-then. At least that is the impression I get when I attempt to offer suggestions to correct seemingly dangerous locations.

The above scenario played out again in August of 2016 during a series of crashes at the intersection of S.R. 281 and S.R. 65 in Henry County in northwest Ohio. Over a period of just eight days, three serious crashes occurred; two of them had fatalities.

After traveling to the site and performing an analysis, I concluded that driver conditioning played a role in the crashes. An interview with the county sheriff and subsequent communications confirmed my belief, prompting a letter to be sent to Todd Audet, District Deputy Director of the Ohio Department of Transportation District 2.

Response to my request to correct the site led to the typical underlying, yet unwritten, message of, “How dare you question my authority and dedication to keeping roads safe.” Here’s the story: Road construction was taking place nearby which caused westbound traffic to be directed onto S.R. 281. Over 15 miles west of I-75, after passing through over a dozen intersections where only cross traffic is required to stop, a westbound driver is confronted with what seems to be adequate notification; i.e., a stop sign with flashing red lights on its edges and a sign underneath stating that cross traffic doesn’t stop. Certainly, that should be enough to warn motorists not to enter the intersection without checking for oncoming traffic. But it isn’t.

At least one of the drivers involved in one of the fatal crashes admitted to their belief that the intersection was a four-way stop. But why? With seemingly adequate warning, why would a driver look past a sign that says Cross Traffic Does Not Stop and proceed into an intersection with oncoming traffic in view? The reason? Driver conditioning!

Once a driver becomes conditioned to their driving environment they inherently stop paying attention to that environment and can look right past a sign directly in their line of sight. That is what caused the death of my wife Sandy, and her mother. That is what caused the death of a first year college student at the intersection being highlighted here. That is what happens countless times each day, causing multiple deaths, dozens of life-changing injuries, and countless crashes.

When I suggested to Mr. Audet that he install rumble strips to draw a driver’s attention back to the driving environment more effectively, he said the construction would end soon and the detour would be removed. That, he reasoned, would take the number of crashes back down to an acceptable range of around one per year. Of course, if you are involved in a crash there, or someone you love is killed there, unless you are a celebrity or someone, otherwise, important, nothing needs to change. And as long as the frequency of crashes remains low, why should there be change?

Oh, I don’t know. Maybe to save one life at a time?

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