Ohio tries to make highways safer from deadly projectiles
On July 10, Sharon Budd became the latest victim to be seriously hurt as a result of someone throwing dangerous objects off a highway overpass.
The 52-year-old Perry Local teacher was the passenger of a vehicle going east on Interstate 80 in central Pennsylvania. A teen threw an 8-inch rock that crashed through the windshield. She has lost use of an eye, may lose a second eye and had to have her forehead and part of her brain surgically removed. Three 17-year-old boys and one 18-year-old man have been charged.
While that incident took place out of state, since the 1980s, Ohio has sought to respond to the hazard of teens throwing objects onto its highways, according to news accounts and court records.
Since 2009, there have been at least 87 incidents investigated by the Ohio Highway Patrol — about 14 to 20 a year — where a motorist reported that someone threw rocks or other objects such as a mailbox, hammer and firewood from an overpass onto an interstate, U.S. route or state route.
None of the incidents took place in Stark County, but several happened in bordering counties. The number is a small fraction of the more than 58,000 traffic crashes in Ohio since 2009 that resulted in death or serious injury.
Most recently Wednesday, a Navarre woman sustained minor arm injuries when someone dropped a railroad spike from a railway overpass onto her Ford Escape on state Route 212 west of Bolivar.
The Ohio Department of Transportation in 1985 proposed a policy to add high fencing to highway overpasses to address concerns of objects being tossed onto highways. Each overpass was scored based on whether it was in an urban area, had a sidewalk, was unlighted, was a major road, was near a school or other pedestrian attraction, was over a high-traffic highway and whether there had been prior incidents of objects being thrown from it. Any overpass that scored a 10 or more was supposed to get a fence of up to 12 feet in height.
However, the state didn’t have the money to quickly fence all the bridges with sufficient scores. Two fatal incidents gave ODOT a greater incentive to accelerate the task.
In 1986 in Akron, Richard Wade Cooey II, 19, Clinton Dickens, 17, and a third man threw a piece of concrete off an overpass without the fencing onto I-77 , disabling a vehicle and forcing two young University of Akron students to pull over. Cooey and Dickens later kidnapped, raped and murdered them. Cooey was executed in 2008 and Dickens is serving a life sentence.In 1990, someone threw or dropped a six-pound chunk of concrete off a bridge without protective fencing over Interstate 71 in Cincinnati. The rock went through the windshield of a vehicle and struck and killed the driver, Pietro Semadeni, 51. No one ever was arrested.
While ODOT eventually fenced both overpasses, a tragedy took place on an overpass that had scored too low.
In 2001, a 15-year-old boy launched a rock at a vehicle off an Interstate 70 overpass near Springfield, shattering the face of Johannes Christian, a 51-year-old minister from Columbus, permanently blinding him.
ODOT said the Plattsburg Road overpass did not have a fence because it was in a rural area, did not have a sidewalk and was not the site of prior incidents. The Ohio Court of Claims ruled in 2002 that ODOT did not have to pay damages to Christian.
“The reality is that the state, of necessity, must allocate resources,” the court said.
The Grey Hill Road I-80 overpass in Pennsylvania where the teen threw the rock that critically hurt Budd probably would not have been fenced under ODOT’s policy.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation said the overpass, along with the one on I-70, didn’t have a fence because it was in a rural area, had no sidewalk and didn’t have any prior incidents.
The attack on Christian prompted the Ohio General Assembly in 2002 to approve Senate Bill 163. It set explicit criminal penalties for people who throw objects off overpasses onto highways.
State Sen. Scott Oelslager, R-North Canton, then the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, worked on the bill.
“We wanted to make sure that the penalties were increased to do what we could to protect the traveling public in this state,” he said, adding in light of what happened to Budd, he will ask ODOT to review its standards for overpass fencing.
SB 163 established a task force that recommended in 2003 that the state keep ODOT’s points system, as at the time no other state was known to have such a system. The task force estimated that it would cost $30 million to install fencing on every ODOT overpass. In 2003, the cost of a 10-foot-high curved fence was $72 a foot. It’s now about $100, according to ODOT.
The task force report said as of 2003, about 657 overpasses and bridges maintained by ODOT had fencing out of 15,053 ODOT bridges, of which 1,618 then crossed over an interstate or freeway, according to a state task force report. ODOT says it now has 907 fenced overpasses and bridges.
ODOT spokesman Steve Faulkner said conditions around bridges can change, resulting in them warranting a fence when it did not do so when they were last scored. But they are usually not scored again until the bridge is repaired.
Photographer Bob Lubell, 57, of Sylvania, said he was driving from I-475 to I-75 in Toledo in 2003 when a boy who appeared to be younger than 12 pushed a rock through a 4-inch gap between the Auburn Avenue overpass and a fence.
The rock fell onto his windshield and broke Lubell’s right hand.
In Stark County, at least five bridges over I-77 and at least six over U.S. Route 62 east of I-77 are not fenced because they don’t have sidewalks, are not near areas that attract pedestrians, are in rural areas or they’re part of a highway exit or other highway.
Saying he supports all major highway overpasses getting fencing, Budd’s husband, Randy Budd, said if that I-80 overpass had had fencing, his wife would not have gotten hurt.
“It’s a tragedy that didn’t need to happen,” he said.
Rev. Christian, of Columbus says the state should fence all bridges, including rural ones.
“Their rule doesn’t make sense, because someone can be hurt in the country,” he said.
Lubell agrees with ODOT’s policy.
“You can’t protect against everything,” he said. “I would not expect a missile barrier in the middle of nowhere.”
Faulkner said ODOT has established criteria to fence bridges, most likely to deter youths seeking to attack motorists.
But “nothing is going to keep somebody who’s adamant about trying to create havoc or harm to someone else from doing it. There are laws in place that (try to) prevent people from shooting people, yet that happens.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it does not have statistics on the number of incidents nationwide a year in which people have thrown objects off a highway overpass.
There have been at least a dozen cases outside of Ohio since 1988 in the U.S., Canada and a U.S. base in Germany where victims of such incidents were killed or sustained horrific injuries. Many took place on interstate highways where the higher vehicle speeds may have increased the force at which rocks hit victims.
According to news reports, victims suffered crushed faces, lost eyes, permanent blindness, brain damage and paralysis. One woman, the sister-in-law of Dr. Phil McGraw, suffered serious burns when someone threw a jar of acid off a turnpike overpass in Oklahoma onto her vehicle in 2001.
If police made an arrest, the alleged perpetrators were always boys or young men ranging in age from pre-teen to early 20s. The incidents often happened at night or in the early morning.
Christian, who often talks to boys who have been arrested for throwing rocks off overpasses, said schools should teach children about the consequences.
“I think they think it’s a challenge to hit a moving object, and (they’re) not thinking of the potential danger that’s involved,” he said. “Most of them were just mixed-up kids thinking they were having some kind of fun.”
Ohio Highway Patrol Lt. Bill Haymaker at the Canton post advises motorists to call 911 if they see a suspicious person on an overpass staring at traffic or throwing objects and to avoid driving underneath them.
He recalled in the 1990s when troopers would patrol I-77 overpasses in Stark County on Halloween to stop teens from dropping pumpkins.
Since then “it really hasn’t been an issue around here,” Haymaker said. But, “it just takes one person to make a bad decision and get someone seriously injured or killed.”
Reach Robert at 330-580-8327 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter: @rwangREP
Repository writer Shane Hoover contributed to this report.
Ohio incidents where objects were thrown from overpasses
Sept. 1, 1986 — Richard Wade Cooey II, 19, Clinton Dickens, 17, and a third man threw a big piece of concrete on I-77 from the Stoner Street overpass in Akron, disabling a vehicle and forcing two young women to pull over. Cooey and Dickens later kidnapped, raped and murdered them. Cooey was executed in 2008 and Dickens is serving a life sentence.
March 22, 1990 — Someone threw a six-pound chunk of concrete off an overpass over I-71 in Cincinnati. The concrete went through the windshield of a vehicle and killed driver Pietro Semadeni, 51. The case is still unsolved. Source: Ohio Supreme Court, Ohio Attorney General
July 9, 2001 — A 15-year-old boy launched a rock at a vehicle off an Interstate 70 overpass near Springfield, shattering the face of Johannes Christian, a 51-year-old minister from Columbus, permanently blinding him. The boy, Jacob McNary, served about 11 years in prison.
July 25, 2003 — A boy dropped a rock through a gap between the Auburn Avenue overpass and a fence in Toledo on the interchange from I-475 to I-75. The rock went through the windshield of photographer Bob Lubell, on his way to shoot a wedding reception that evening. Lubell suffered a right broken hand.
March 5-7, 2005 — Someone threw rocks off the Smithville Road and Steve Whalen overpasses on Route 35 in the Dayton area. A 9-year-old sustained injuries to her face from shattered glass and other vehicles were damaged. At least two boys, ages 12 and 13, were arrested. Source: WHIO
March 26, 2007 — Brecksville police arrested two teen Middleburg Heights boys and accused them of throwing rocks from bridges at vehicles on I-71, I-77 and the Ohio Turnpike. Source: Cleveland.com
Jan. 9, 2008 — Someone threw rocks off the Connecticut Avenue overpass of I-680 in the Youngstown area. One large rock smashed a vehicle’s passenger-side window causing minor cuts to the face of a 23-year-old woman in the vehicle. Source: Vindy.com
Sep. 7, 2008 - Two men, ages 19 and 18, were arrested for felony vehicular vandalism by the Ohio Highway Patrol and accused of throwing rocks from the Route 84 overpass onto Route 11 near Ashtabula. No one was hurt. Source: starbeacon.com
April 22, 2013 — Someone hurled a rock from the Lockington Road overpass on Interstate 75 in southern Shelby County near Sidney. A 51-year-old Celina man sustained minor injuries when he crashed his car into a ditch. Source: WPKO
June 1, 2013 — A 9-year-old girl in Marion suffered a broken nose when someone on a railroad overpass threw a rock at the SUV she was riding in as a passenger. The rock struck the rubber seal of the open passenger window and then her face. Source: nbc4i.com
July 30, 2014 – Someone dropped a steel railroad spike onto a Navarre woman’s 2013 Ford Escape from a railroad overpass over Route 212 west of Bolivar. The spike broke the windshield, causing minor injuries to a woman’s arm. No arrests were made. Source: Times-Reporter