Where accidents happen, and why
by James Leonard
A bit after 3 on a January afternoon, Pauline Lee was driving south on Seventh past Pioneer High School. She had just picked up her grandson, Jackson, at his piano lesson. There was already an inch of snow on the ground and plenty in the air as she turned her silver 2003 Honda CR-V left onto Scio Church.
The small SUV slid through the intersection and jumped the curb on the far side. It flattened a street sign, scraped against a pine tree, ran right over a second tree, and came to a halt against a third.
The wrecker driver pronounced the Honda a total loss. The police blamed the crash on the weather.
That’s what it’s like on the streets of Ann Arbor—you’re driving along, minding your own business, and suddenly, boom! You’ve been in a crash.
Roads covered with ice and snow are especially treacherous. “In a five-day shift, I take at least five [accident reports],” says Ann Arbor police officer Noel Scott. “Come winter, double it.”
But crashes happen year round. And as I learned while riding with Scott and three other AAPD officers, there are some places where they happen over and over again.
Like Geddes west of US-23. “It’s two lanes, and when the traffic backs up, people are always jumping out of line and getting hit,” explains Scott, a twelve-year AAPD veteran. “And then there are the rear-enders. I took three separate accidents there in a couple of hours last week.”
It’s the same on Washtenaw, he says, “except there are more lanes and more accidents. It’s bumper to bumper, people get distracted, and they hit. Or people drive out of Whole Foods and don’t see somebody coming at them in the turn lane, and they hit. But, really, any heavily trafficked road during rush hour, there’s going to be accidents.”
The day I rode with Scott, he responded to the scene of an accident across from the Forest Avenue parking structure. A tiny teenager in tight jeans
and a pink jacket stood in the street with a stunned look on her face. Her beat-up Nissan Maxima was wedged between a half-knocked-over tree and a Chevy minivan.
She spoke only Spanish, so Scott, who is bilingual, handled the interview.
“She’s sixteen years old and she says she was on the phone with her husband and swerved to avoid something in the street and ran up on the grass,” he explained afterward. “Then she panicked and threw it into reverse and ran over the tree. Then she panicked some more and threw it into drive and ran into the parked car. Then she stopped the car and turned it off. Good thing, too. She’d done enough damage.”
Asked what kind of ticket he’d be writing, Scott replied, “Every kind. She’s got no license. She’s got no insurance. The car’s not registered. She’s damaged the tree. She’s damaged the meter. And on top of that the car will have to be impounded, so she’s going to have to pay for the towing plus the fee to get it out.”
Another afternoon, I rode along with officer Renee Bondy when she responded to a three-car accident on Packard west of Platt. Bondy pulled up in heavy traffic to find an old white Caravan in the center turn lane facing west, a red Mustang up over the curb facing east, and a small black car turned sideways between them in the two eastbound lanes.
She parked her cruiser 100 yards west of the crash site and turned on her flashing lights.
“Usually it helps remind the drivers to slow down,” Bondy explained. “But I’ve seen people get mesmerized by the flashing lights. I’ve seen second accidents caused by people staring at the first accident. Talk about not paying attention!”
It looked as though the car in the middle had sped out from a side street, bounced off the front of the Caravan waiting in the turn lane, and slammed into the front of the
oncoming Mustang. As a tow truck pulled the ’Stang off the curb, we could see that its hood was crumpled all the way back to the engine block. The black car’s front end was even worse, and its back end was pushed right into the back seat. Miraculously, no one was seriously injured.
The third and worst accident I saw came on a morning shift when I was riding with officer Jeff Robinson, a lanky Ann Arbor native with cuts on his nose and Band-Aids on his fingers. “I got hurt last Sunday chasing a guy into a house who turned around and slammed the door in my face,” Robinson explained. “It was eight o’clock in the morning. He’d been in a known drug house, and I’d pulled him over and he had [arrest] warrants out, so he took off. He caught me right here”—he pointed to a line across the fingers of his left hand—“and the stitches came out too early.”
Robinson, a trained bomb-dog handler, was driving a dark blue Chevy Tahoe with “Czar” printed on its back doors. Canine Czar, the AAPD’s bomb dog, watched us through slots in a plastic partition between the seats.
Robinson had just been telling me what a good job traffic engineers did reconfiguring some dangerous turn lanes at State and Eisenhower when he took a call about an accident on Hill near Tappan. We found two cruisers and a command vehicle already at the scene, along with a Huron Valley ambulance and a fire truck.
A tractor-trailer was stopped parallel to the construction site at the U-M business school. In the opposite lane, a young man in a zipped sweatshirt and knit cap stood next to a small, light-colored car. And lying flat on his back with his head abutting the car’s left front tire was the workman who’d been guiding the truck into the construction site—he’d been hit as the student pulled heedlessly out of a nearby parking structure. To judge by the look on the worker’s face, he was in excruciating pain.
We watched as the medics put a collar brace on the man, carefully lifted him onto a stretcher, and loaded him into the ambulance. The kid in the knit cap looked as if he couldn’t understand what had just occurred.
“Look, you can see he had his headlights on,” Robinson pointed out, “and the guy was standing in the middle of the road with his hand up. So it’s not like he couldn’t see him. He’s going to have to live with that for the rest of his life.”
During my four ride-alongs, only one officer wasn’t called to respond to an accident. Ironically, that was Eric Freier—a twelve-year veteran who joined the AAPD because he wanted to investigate accidents.
A big, strapping man with close-cropped dark hair and a neat mustache, Freier grew up on a dairy farm in Gladwin and did his first four years in law enforcement with the sheriff’s department there. “I came down because of my interests in doing crash scene investigating,” he explained. “And I thought this job would give me plenty of experience.
“But actually,” Freier continued as he eased his Ford Crown Victoria out of the City Hall parking lot early one cold morning, “this city is relatively safe, with not that many serious and fatal crashes. I’m frankly baffled; I was expecting more. Not that that’s not a good thing—and not that there’s not plenty of crashes anyway.
“The worst place for the highway intersections is I-94 and Jackson—the eastbound on-ramp,” Freier offered as we rolled down Fifth Avenue. “Think about it: you’re trying to get on while vehicles are coming at you out of a good ninety-degree turn on a poorly banked curve off of a bridge. That intersection’s notorious for pile-ups. And when it rains or that bridge freezes, it’s even worse. We lost a firefighter there a couple of years ago.”
They did. On January 7, 2006, at 7:08 a.m., Amy Pennywitt, a thirty-four-year-old career officer with the Ann Arbor Fire Department, was hit from behind by a pickup truck spinning out of control on the icy bridge while she was walking toward an overturned vehicle to assist the passengers. Pennywitt died six days later, survived by her husband and parents.
“Last January , when we had all that snow, we had four or five rollovers,” Freier continued. “This is typically a combination of the driver’s attitude with the conditions at hand. Some people, whatever the conditions, still go sixty, seventy miles per hour. I see it every day riding down from Brighton: I’m doing the limit in the right lane and people are passing me at eighty, eighty-five, ninety. And then add rain, snow, sleet, and ice into the mix, and you’ve got what happens at Jackson and I-94.
“The second-worst place for crashes on highways is M-14 and Barton,” Freier added. “No question. And there’s one reason: it’s the only on-and-off-ramp in the state—if not the entire Midwest—that has a stop sign at it. You’re coming down this long sweeping curve, and you’re coming down too fast. The speed drops there from seventy to fifty-five but most people don’t notice, especially if they aren’t from the area, and they’re doing eighty or more. And they think it’s three lanes, and by the time they find out it’s not—that it’s an off lane—their reaction time is down to nothing and they go plowing through the guardrails. I’ve seen it thirty, forty times in the last twelve years.”
According to Freier, three things cause crashes: speed, weather, and “driver attitude.” “I attribute it to people significantly extending their commuting time,” he says. “They want country living, and they think they can make it up on the roads. They give just so much time to the commute, and they don’t add in any time when the weather’s bad. And they don’t adjust their attitude when the weather’s bad, either. They’re on their cell and fooling with their iPod and it’s raining or it’s snowing, and they don’t slow down.”
Freier’s advice: “Leave one, one and a half car lengths between vehicles for every ten miles per hour.” And, he adds, “If
I were running the driving schools, I’d
have every kid go through the precision
driving course we go through. It would be an eye-opening experience. Any sixteen-, seventeen-, eighteen-year-old kid is going to get into a crash. You can bank on it. And this would help them know what to do when they hit a patch of black ice.”
Asked what he considers the most dangerous highway intersections, Jeff Robinson lists them crisply and in the same order as Freier: “Jackson and 94—people don’t handle the curve well, and we get pin-ins and rollovers there all the time. And Barton and M-14—that intersection is convenient for the people who live there, but it’s dangerous and it should have been shut years ago.”
Renee Bondy agrees about the most dangerous intersections, but she swaps the order: “Number one is M-14 and Barton Drive, eastbound lane—absolutely. People don’t realize what’s happening, and they slam right into the vehicles waiting to get on at the stop sign there.
“Number two is the westbound curve on 94 at Jackson,” says the three-year AAPD veteran. “Even though the state police take most of the calls, we still get called there a lot, particularly in snowstorms when the bridge turns into a sheet of ice. That’s the worst place to be in a snowstorm in the winter—and too many people do not slow down enough. They have four-wheel drive and they think everything’s good and it doesn’t matter and there’s a pileup and they slide right into it.”
Noel Scott makes the designation of the most dangerous intersections unanimous. He’s seen overturned cars and flipped trailers at Barton and M-14, he says, and “the guardrails are always getting taken out.” He says that while design is the problem at Barton, the accidents at Jackson and I-94 are “mostly weather related—rain, snow, and especially black ice. We had a motorcycle fatality there a few years ago. He got on at Ann Arbor–Saline, got up to speed, hit a patch of black ice on the bridge over Jackson, and couldn’t stop. He was killed instantly—and I mean instantly. There was a piece here and a piece there and a piece over there.
“It’s sad, but it was the driver’s fault,” Scott continues dispassionately. “He was driving too fast for the conditions. He should have been going thirty-five but he was doing seventy. It doesn’t matter what the weather—the driver should adjust.”
Pauline Lee’s accident in the snow on Scio Church Road totaled her Honda, but it could have been far worse. She was wearing her seatbelt and her grandson was in his booster seat. Neither of them was hurt.
Lee, seventy-eight, had never been in an accident before—in fact, she said, she’d never so much as gotten a traffic ticket. Because the January crash was attributed to the weather, she wasn’t ticketed this time, either.
She called her daughter-in-law, who was at the Dicken School science fair, and waited calmly for her to show up.
Jackson, age five and a half, was calm too. It was only after his mom arrived and strapped him securely into the backseat of her minivan that he turned to Lee and said, “Grandma, let’s never do that again.”
[Originally published in February, 2009.]