March accidents don't mean I-275 bridge not safe

Posted at 6:01 AM, May 19, 2016

Two fatal accidents within a week in March have put the Combs-Hehl Bridge in an unwelcome spotlight.

That has led some to believe the span, which carries Interstate 275 across the Ohio River between Fort Thomas, Ky., and Cincinnati at its border with Anderson Township, is unsafe. That was especially true after the horrific March 15 accident that killed 32-year-old Milford software developer Martin Bouma.

Bouma’s car was flipped off the bridge into the Ohio River as the result of a chain of accidents involving 12 vehicles in all. High, fast-moving waters delayed the recovery of his body and vehicle for 11 days.

Less than a week later, police say Cory Lippmeier, 35, was intoxicated and driving at speeds of up to 140 miles per hour when he rear-ended a vehicle driven by Scott Petredis eastbound on the bridge. Petredis, 41, was killed in the accident. Police say Lippmeier was intoxicated and have cited Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati with serving him after he was visibly drunk.

Another dramatic accident occurred near the bridge in August, when Margarito Santiago drove the wrong way up the Kellogg Avenue exit ramp and onto I-275. He told police he had been drinking before the crash. He struck two vehicles, but there were no serious injuries in that wreck.

Despite the high-profile nature of those accidents, experts say the bridge was not a factor and that it and its design are safe. An analysis of police accident records from both sides of the river confirm that the bridge has seen far fewer accidents than other Tri-State bridge approaches.

Rich Miller, a UC civil engineering professor, says bridges are generally safe and that people shouldn’t be too worried about unusual accidents like the one that killed Martin Bouma when his car was flipped off the Combs-Hehl Bridge. (Thomas Consolo for WCPO)

“We need to worry more about the driver than the road,” said Rich Miller. The professor of civil engineering at the University of Cincinnati consults across the country on bridge structures and design. 

While he said it’s natural for a fluke accident like the one that killed Bouma to capture the public’s attention, Miller said it’s important to keep the numbers in perspective. The safety systems built into the bridge “did not fail,” he said, and they don’t “99.9 percent of the time.” He said distracted driving is a much greater risk on the road.

“Whatever hit (Bouma) had an awful lot of force,” he said, and at just the right angle, to have flipped his stopped Pontiac Grand Prix between bridge supports. Indeed, police say a semi ran into several cars, including Bouma’s, that already had stopped for a fender-bender. It’s because those cars were already stopped, Miller said, that Bouma’s car could have been flipped through the supports.

“We design bridges to be safe for people who are driving,” he said. “We do spend an awful lot of time thinking about safety.”

There are two main safety features built into modern bridges to protect motorists, he said. The first is the barriers along the side of the bridge. Called New Jersey-type barriers, they’re designed to keep vehicles from hitting the bridge structure. That has dual advantages, he said, because hitting a beam at high speed would be far more likely to cause serious injury and it would be more likely to compromise the bridge’s structural integrity.

If the latter sounds callous, consider all the vehicles that could be on a span at the time of an accident. “If the bridge collapses, that’s far worse,” he said.

The other system built into bridges to protect drivers is more passive: the safety lane. Designed at between 10 feet and 12 feet wide, they offer the best and simplest defense by getting disabled vehicles (and the people in them) out of the flow of traffic.

By the numbers

What drivers perceive as the Combs-Hehl Bridge falls under the jurisdiction of both the Campbell County and Cincinnati police departments. Because most of the bridge is in Kentucky, Campbell County is responsible for the bridge structure itself and the western approaches. Cincinnati covers the eastern approaches, including the junction with Kellogg Avenue.

Police data for the period from Jan. 1, 2015, through March 31, 2016, shows 63 accidents on or near the Combs-Hehl Bridge. About 57 percent of them, 36, occurred in Cincinnati.

That’s to be expected because the leading cause of accidents in the vicinity isn’t the bridge itself, police say, but the Kellogg Avenue interchange — especially before events at Riverbend. “Most of the time our accidents happen from being unfamiliar with the area, changing lanes or getting backed up in traffic from the venue,” said Officer Jerry Enneking of Campbell County. Of the 27 accidents in the time period in his jurisdiction, he said, only four occurred on westbound lanes of I-275.

Reports from both sides of the river show the overwhelming majority of accidents are either rear-enders in stopped traffic or external events like deer on the roadway. Those numbers, especially in Northern Kentucky, are far lower than when Riverbend first opened, Enneking said, thanks to cooperation with Cincinnati Police and Riverbend. Two exits from I-275 are now used to get vehicles into Riverbend’s lots. That has significantly reduced backups in traffic onto the bridge from the Kellogg Avenue exit ramp.

“Traffic used to back up to I-471, occasionally to Wilder.” Enneking said. At the other end of the ramp, he said, Cincinnati and Hamilton County officers now help keep traffic moving off the interstate.

Neither do most accidents near the bridge cause injury. Of the 63 total accidents in the 15-month stretch, 16 involved injuries; only two of those resulted in deaths — Bouma’s and Petredis’.

By comparison, Cincinnati Police in the same time span recorded 72 accidents on just the north side of the Daniel Carter Beard Bridge. The area covers the end of I-471 and the ramps connecting it with Fort Washington Way, I-71 and Liberty Street. Data for the bridge itself (again in Kentucky’s jurisdiction) and its approaches in Newport were not available.

About a quarter resulted in injuries, the same as for Combs-Hehl, and one motorist died. Police reports cited many reasons in those incidents, including drivers’ losing control and hitting barricades, debris or animals on the roadway, rear-enders and even a high-speed police pursuit from Kentucky.

Predictably, both of those sets of data are dwarfed by numbers for Fort Washington Way. More than 200 accidents were reported there from January 2015 through March this year, according to Cincinnati police. Fortunately, there were no fatalities in the period, but 50 accidents involved injuries, again around a quarter.

The number of wrecks attributable to the Brent Spence is actually even higher. The Fort Washington Way data does not include accidents on the bridge itself, on I-75 headed onto the bridge or in Covington.