NO WARN­ING BE­FORE WRONG-WAY CRASH

Stretch of I-95 where Pom­pano woman died had no safety de­vices

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Mike Clary Staff writer

Af­ter sev­eral hor­rific wrong-way crashes in Florida, in­clud­ing one in 2013 in which two 21-year-old best friends from Coral Springs were killed, traf­fic of­fi­cials be­gan in­stalling warn­ing sys­tems at high­way en­trance ramps.

There are now flash­ing signs and cam­eras at many dan­ger­ous in­ter­changes, in­clud­ing some on the Saw­grass Ex­press­way in Broward County.

But there are no such warn­ing de­vices at all on In­ter­state 95 in Vo­lu­sia County where a head-on, wrong-way crash early Sun­day took the life of an­other 21-year-old woman from Broward County.

Jen­nifer Starr Otto, a col­lege stu­dent who was re­turn­ing home to Pom­pano Beach from a visit to South Carolina, was a pas­sen­ger in a 2013 Toy­ota Prius that was hit by a pickup

truck trav­el­ing north in the south­bound lanes of I-95 near Ormond Beach early Sun­day, au­thor­i­ties said.

In­jured was the driver of the Prius, Maria Sten­gel, 29, a Hills­boro Beach po­lice of­fi­cer and a Boca Ra­ton res­i­dent. Sten­gel re­mained in se­ri­ous con­di­tion Mon­day in Hal­i­fax Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Day­tona Beach.

Both women were wear­ing seat belts, of­fi­cials said.

The driver of the 2007 Ford pickup truck that hit the Prius was iden­ti­fied as Alex Ed­ward Jami­son, 28, of Simp­sonville, S.C. The truck over­turned and caught fire, in­ves­ti­ga­tors said, but Jami­son was able to get out of the ve­hi­cle on his own.

Jami­son, also wear­ing a seat belt, sus­tained mi­nor in­juries.

FHP Sgt. Kim Montes said in­ves­ti­ga­tors have not de­ter­mined how Jami­son ended up go­ing up I-95 on the wrong side of the road. “We are still try­ing to de­ter­mine if he made a U-turn or got on the wrong way [at a ramp],” she said.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors ob­tained a war­rant to draw blood from Jami­son on “sus­pi­cion of pos­si­ble im­pair­ment,” said Montes. “All the wit­nesses said he was go­ing the wrong way.”

Crim­i­nal charges are pend­ing tox­i­col­ogy re­sults, in­ves­ti­ga­tors said.

Al­though fa­tal wrong­way crashes are rel­a­tively rare when com­pared to all traf­fic ac­ci­dents, in­ves­ti­ga­tors say, they are par­tic­u­larly vi­o­lent.

“The Prius looked like it was folded into a hunk of metal,” said Montes. “It is sur­pris­ing the driver came out alive.”

These head-on crashes usu­ally oc­cur at night or in the early morn­ing, and of­ten in­volve some­one im­paired by al­co­hol or drugs, ac­cord­ing to a Florida De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion study pub­lished in April 2015.

That study looked at 280 wrong-way crashes that oc­curred on Florida ex­press­ways be­tween 2009 and 2014 that re­sulted in more than 400 in­juries and 75 deaths.

Al­co­hol and/or drugs were in­volved in 45 per­cent of wrong-way crashes, more than 16 times the al­co­hol and/or drug in­volve­ment pro­por­tion for free­way/ ex­press­way crashes in Florida, the study found.

The ma­jor­ity of wrong­way crashes (71 per­cent) oc­curred in dark con­di­tions, com­pared with 29 per­cent of gen­eral ex­press­way crashes in Florida.

Warn­ing de­vices — flash­ing bea­cons, so­lar-pow­ered warn­ing signs and ve­hi­clede­tec­tion equip­ment — were in­stalled on 10 ramps on the turn­pike’s Home­stead Ex­ten­sion be­tween Mi­ra­mar and Do­ral and on five ramps on the Saw­grass Ex­press­way in Broward.

If a mo­torist goes the wrong way or en­ters the road­way us­ing an exit ramp and misses the flash­ing signs, a cam­era will send a pic­ture of the ve­hi­cle to the FHP’s com­mand cen­ter and to the turn­pike’s traf­fic man­age­ment cen­ter in Pom­pano Beach. Traf­fic man­agers can then pro­gram over­head signs on the high­way to alert mo­torists that a wrong-way driver is in the area.

In its first year, the alert sys­tem pre­vented at least 14 wrong-way wrecks on the Saw­grass Ex­press­way and also on a stretch of Florida’s Turn­pike in Mi­ami-Dade, ac­cord­ing to state data re­leased in Oc­to­ber 2015.

The 14 ve­hi­cles go­ing the wrong way were de­tected by the de­vices, which flashed warn­ings and si­mul­ta­ne­ously alerted au­thor­i­ties. Be­cause no crash oc­curred and the ve­hi­cles did not show up on other road­side cam­eras, turn­pike of­fi­cials say the driv­ers must have turned around on the ramps.

But the $400,000 pi­lot pro­gram failed to pre­vent one crash on the Saw­grass in the predawn hours of Sept. 16, 2015.

Of­fi­cials say the driver, Harold Wil­son Martinez, 36, of Park­land, ig­nored the flash­ing warn­ing signs and headed north on the south­bound lanes at the Sam­ple Road exit. Cam­eras snapped a pic­ture of a ve­hi­cle go­ing the wrong way, and a minute later au­thor­i­ties got a 911 call that he hit an­other ve­hi­cle.

But deadly crashes con­tinue to hap­pen.

“We see this as a prob­lem,” said Montes. In Orange County, for ex­am­ple, where sev­eral en­trance ramps are mon­i­tored by wrong-way cam­eras, “we some­times get two or three pic­tures a day of peo­ple driv­ing on the wrong side of the high­way.”

Not all of those in­ci­dents end in crashes, she said. “They ei­ther turn around or get on the right side of the road,” Montes said.

For those mo­torists who do drive of­ten at night, Montes ad­vises to avoid the pass­ing lane, be­cause an un­aware wrong-way driver may per­ceive that as their in­side lane.

The crash that claimed Otto’s life oc­curred at 1:15 a.m.

Fred Otto said his daugh­ter and Sten­gel had made a visit to Coastal Carolina Univer­sity in Con­way, S.C., where Jen­nifer had at­tended school.

She planned to en­roll in Broward Col­lege this fall and as­pired to be a nurse or a vet­eri­nar­ian, Fred Otto said.

“She was kind and car­ing to ev­ery­body, loved to help peo­ple out,” said Otto of his daugh­ter.

Jen­nifer Otto worked as a nanny, look­ing af­ter chil­dren, and also at ice skat­ing rinks in Pom­pano Beach and Coral Springs, her father said.

Sten­gel has worked for the town of Hills­boro Beach for about six years, first as a po­lice dis­patcher. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the po­lice acad­emy, she was sworn in as a po­lice of­fi­cer in Jan­uary 2016 and is as­signed to road pa­trol, ac­cord­ing to Po­lice Maj. Jay Szes­nat.

“This is just shock­ing,” said Szes­nat. “Our hearts go out to all the fam­i­lies in­volved.”

Funeral ser­vices for Otto are pend­ing.

JOE CAVARETTA/STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

In con­trast to I-95 in Vo­lu­sia County, there are warn­ing signs at some lo­ca­tions in Broward County, in­clud­ing this one on the exit ramp from the Saw­grass Ex­press­way to Sam­ple Road. Warn­ing de­vices were in­stalled on five ramps on the Saw­grass in Broward.

OTTO FAM­ILY/COUR­TESY

Jen­nifer Otto, 21, was hit by a truck trav­el­ing north in the south­bound lanes of I-95 near Ormond Beach.

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