By Hannah K. Sparling, Cincinnati Enquirer, USA TODAY NETWORK
It looked like a bright spot in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic: With the roads practically empty as people sheltered in place and worked from home, there were fewer car crashes.
But the good news stops there.
While the overall crash rate is down about 25% year-to-date in Ohio, fatalities are actually up.
From January through July 23, Ohio had 588 people die in car crashes, according to state data. That’s eleven more than during the same time frame in 2019, and the 2020 data doesn’t even include seven provisional deaths – fatalities that have been reported but are not yet included in the state’s official tally.
Experts say the culprit is speed.
“What we’re seeing is that the other cars not being on the road, not being in the way, allows people to drive like they’re a bat out of hell,” said Cincinnati resident Derek Bauman, a retired police officer and advocate for Vision Zero, a plan that pushes for zero traffic fatalities.
It’s not your imagination. An Ohio State University study found drivers in Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland really are speeding more now than they did before the coronavirus pandemic.
And there’s more “extreme speeding,” said Harvey Miller, a geography professor and director of OSU’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis, which did the study. Instead of a driver going five miles over the speed limit, he might go 20 or 25 over or even faster.
“In Ohio’s three major cities, drivers are apparently taking advantage of empty roads to drive faster, making streets and highways potentially more dangerous,” the study states.
Ohio’s stay-at-home order took effect on March 23. From March 24 through July 6, Ohio State Highway Patrol troopers handed out 1,159 tickets to people driving 100 miles per hour or faster. That’s a 76% increase compared to the same time frame in 2019.
There seems to be a false impression among some drivers that troopers are not handing out speeding tickets during the pandemic, said Trooper Jessica McIntyre, a highway patrol spokeswoman.
“We’re still enforcing the law,” she said, “just like we were before.”
At 9 p.m. on July 17, Linn Street in Cincinnati’s West End was crowded with mourners. Police blocked off the road to cars as dozens of people lit candles, prayed and celebrated the life of Donna Pringle, a 67-year-old West End resident who died on July 3 after a driver ran into her in a crosswalk.
“I love y’all, and I want y’all to be careful,” Pringle’s sister, Delores Pringle, told the crowd, imploring them to put down their phones when they’re driving and to slow down and pay attention.
Donna Pringle died just steps from where Mark Eubanks, a 48-year-old man, was hit and killed in a crosswalk on Linn Street in 2018.
“I don’t want this to happen again on this street,” Delores Pringle said. “It cannot. It will not. Because we will not let it. … My heart is broken. There’s no glue in the world that can mend it back together. All I can ask is for Jesus to help me.”
The driver who hit Pringle was going an estimated 10 miles per hour over the speed limit and was suspected to be under the influence of marijuana, according to the police report. She was “reaching for a cigarette in the center console at the approximate time of the crash.”
Bauman, the Vision Zero proponent who helped organize the vigil, said a pedestrian has a 90% chance of surviving if she is hit by a car going 20 miles per hour. If the car is going 40 miles per hour, there’s a 90% chance the pedestrian will die.
The driver who killed Pringle was going 40 miles per hour, according to the police report.
Hamilton County has had 28 fatal crashes this year, one more than during the same time frame in 2019, according to state data.
The Cincinnati Enquirer got reports for 21 of those crashes, all that was available at the time of the request.
The dead range from a 17-year-old boy to an 82-year-old man.
Pedestrians were killed in seven of the crashes, and speed was mentioned specifically in five of the reports.
On May 9, a driver was going 42 miles per hour on Elberon Avenue, where the limit is 35, according to the report. The driver, who was suspected to be under the influence of drugs, swerved to the right and hit and killed a pedestrian, a 59-year-old man from Cincinnati.
On April 3, a 17-year-old from Indian Hill was driving 79 miles per hour in a 35-mph zone. He lost control around a curve, swerved, overcorrected, and his car rolled into a telephone pole off the side of the road. He was ejected from the vehicle and died.
Miller, the OSU researcher, said stricter speed enforcement alone is not enough. “We have to redesign our roads and highways in order to force people to drive slower,” he said, adding that changes like narrower lanes and dedicated space for cyclists and pedestrians can help slow down drivers.
Bauman said the city should lower speed limits and add speed bumps, bike lanes, pocket parks and on-street dining – anything to take space away from cars and give it back to people.
If drivers have multiple lanes and nothing in their path for miles, they’re going to speed, Bauman said, especially when, as during the coronavirus pandemic, there is less traffic.
If there is less space and more obstacles, Bauman said, drivers will have no choice but to slow down and pay attention.