A makeshift memorial along a rural Clark County road serves as a doleful warning to drivers that the most dangerous roads in the region are not the ones carrying people the greatest distance or at the highest speeds.
Most fatal crashes occur on rural roadways that have 55-mph speed limits, according to this newspaper’s analysis of traffic fatality data from the Ohio State Highway Patrol.
There have been 14 fatal crashes this year in Montgomery County, according to the patrol. One each occurred on Interstate 70, I-75 and I-675. The rest were on surface streets in cities or rural areas.
Clark County has had four fatal crashes in 2014, with none of them on the interstate.
Three recent multiple-fatal crashes in the region all were on country roads. The most recent was in the early-morning hours of March 26 on Ridge Road in Clark County. A car carrying Wesley Culpepper, 15, Daniel Tittle, 17, and Charles “Chas” Luthe, 16, struck a tree with so much force that the vehicle split in two and killed all three teens on impact.
Luthe’s mother, Suzanne Luthe, recently returned to the scene of the crash to pray and see the small wooden crosses, teddy bears, flowers and other items left by family and friends.
She figures that on the night of her son’s death, it took only a few seconds for the car he and his friends were riding in to go over the crest of a hill and rocket out of control into a huge tree.
“It’s exciting and they’re looking for that excitement,” she said. “What they find is tragedy.”
She and Chas’s father, Gary Osborn, know more than most parents about the dangers teens face on local roads. Osborn is a former Richmond, Indiana, police officer. Suzanne Luthe is a retired Clark County Juvenile Court magistrate. Osborn said teens seek out the curvy country roads.
“It’s the thrill and excitement, saying ‘Hey, I just went 10 miles an hour over the speed limit and didn’t get caught.’ You are increasing your chance for an accident,” Osborn said.
Lt. Brian Aller, commander of the highway patrol post in Springfield, said they have seen a serious problem with country roads that often are hilly, narrow and offer little or no room for error.
“If you drive off the side of the road there’s very little chance of you escaping without hitting anything,” Aller said.
‘My big worry’
Another tragedy occurred in November 2012 in rural Sugarcreek Twp., Greene County. There, a Dodge pickup truck crashed into a tree on Wagner Road near Oleva Drive, killing three teenage girls.
The driver of the truck, Jesse “Tate” Whitaker, now 19, was convicted on three counts of vehicular homicide and two traffic counts. A juvenile court magistrate revoked Whitaker’s drivers license until he turns 21 and ordered him to 300 hours of community service.
Much like the scene of the Clark County crash, the stretch of Wagner Road where the girls were killed is notorious for its hills and blind curves. Nearby resident Margaret Buckle said the road is so dangerous she has considered moving to protect her teenage daughters.
“That’s my big worry, the kids driving,” Buckle said.
Just more than a week before the Greene County crash in 2012, another accident killed three teens in Darke County. According to the Darke County Sheriff’s Office, the teens’ 1994 Pontiac Bonneville went off the side of Byrket Road, rolled several times, and came to rest on its top in a wooded area. All three victims died at the scene.
Highway Patrol data show there were 14 Darke County fatalities in 2012 and only four were on the county’s busiest highway, U.S. 127.
713 rural fatalities
Rural fatal crashes take the lives of more people in Ohio than crashes in urban areas, according to a 2010 study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The study indicated there were 713 rural fatalities in the state in 2010, compared to 366 in urban areas.
Lt. Aller of the Highway Patrol said while alcohol and excess speed played a factor in the deaths of the Clark County teens, other factors contribute to crashes involving drivers who have not been drinking or speeding. Aller said drivers let their guard down and become less alert when traveling on familiar country roads.
“It’s not on their mind,” Aller said. “They’re almost home and that’s what they are thinking about.”
Suzanne Luthe agrees that people become too comfortable driving the same route they have traveled so many times in their daily routine.
“You know every curve. You know the potholes and you think you are in control of the road, and that is not the case.”
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