On August 5, a terrible incident took the life of Jacob Gross of Grayling on US 10 near Stiles Road when the Impala he was driving reportedly crossed the center line, sideswiped a Silverado, then collided head on with a Suburban trailering a sailboat, which crashed through Gross' window killing him instantly.  The victim's last name kind of describes the effect.

Sheriff Kim Cole announced a change in traffic enforcement on that often dangerous section of highway:

Regardless of the proactive traffic enforcement, on September 1, another fatal accident occurred just east of this incident.  Scottville resident Russell Spore reportedly rear-ended a semi hauling gravel during a red light at the Stiles Road stoplight when Spore failed to brake, and died immediately.  News outlets relayed Cole's talking point that due to the stepped up enforcement by the MCSO, a unit was on scene three minutes after the crash. 

These two accidents and The Phantom Motorcycle crash of July 2015 earlier alluded to, could not have been prevented with more sheriff road patrol and more Michigan State Police units on the road, and more proactive traffic enforcement.  Arguably, such measures only make accidents more probable over time.  Before elaborating on that premise, let's review the history of traffic safety in Sheriff Cole's bailiwick. 

His first year as sheriff (2013) had him focused on safety on the US 10 corridor, but that year had three fatalities occur.  At the beginning of 2014, he was pleased with the introduction of left turn arrows by MDOT at stoplight-controlled intersections as well as his implementation of 'focused enforcement' around holidays, along with a 'public buy in', and attributed those factors to the lack of fatalities in that corridor in 2014.  Perhaps it would be better attributed to luck.

Using the UofM Traffic Crash Data tool, we find that the stats compiled since 2010 (when many specific stats became readily available), the traffic crashes and fatalities for the county can be located and compared:

Year          # of Crashes          # of Fatalities

2016          1389                            5

2015          1272                            3

2014          1340                            4

2013          1360                            6

2012          1286                            4

2011          1244                            7

2010          1336                            2

The amount of crashes in the county have not varied from the 1244-1389 range during that time, but the average number of crashes in the county during Cole's four years, 1340.3, is over 50 higher per year than the 1288.7 during Sheriff Jeff Fiers time.  Likewise, the average number of fatalities per year has went up from 4.3 to 4.5 in those same periods. 

These two increases have occurred despite Kim Cole's focusing on traffic safety and enforcement in the 2012 election cycle and since, and how it would pay off in safer driving in Mason County.  The numbers alone say it hasn't worked, and seems to indicate that Cole was better controlling traffic safety when he was on the road patrol rather than since he has been running it.  But that may be too simple, as the trend in Michigan has shown similar increases in crashes and fatalities throughout the state for those two periods. 

Let's look scientifically at two factors which Sheriff Cole focused on in saying why 2014 was fatal-free on US 10 between Scottville and Ludington.  He touted the new left-turn arrows, which have also been popping up everywhere in the state since federal approval for left turn arrows to improve safety happened around ten years ago. 

With limited studies over limited impacts, left-turn arrows have been put up where they may not be logically warranted.  While they may offer more opportunities to safely turn left at some intersections, they have an additional effect of making the stoplight cycle longer, which makes more traffic need to stop, for more time, which isn't a good outcome if there isn't a reasonable increase in safety.  More and longer stops do not make roadways safer; if they are unwarranted, they actually make things less safe.

Consider Sheriff Cole's admission of three fatalities on US 10 in 2013 to justify the new system and increased patrols.  Those three fatalities were in order:  a moped operator falling fatally near Quarterline Road, a driver failing to yield to US 10 traffic turning off Quarterline Rd., and a driver making a left turn in front of another at Dennis Road.  There are no stoplights anywhere near those locations.

The four fatalities in 2012 were not in any way attributable to traffic lights or levels of police enforcement.  Darius Vanbrook was ran over by a sleepy and speeding MCSO corrections officer in the middle of the night, motorcyclists Carol and Gary Berenbrock was ran into by a car unsafely passing on US 31, and a car ran off the road on Johnson Road and struck a tree. 

Even the seven singleton fatalities in the county in 2011 weren't at intersections with stoplights, the closest being someone pulling out of a private drive east of Brye Road on US 10.  The two in 2010 occurred on Hawley and Stiles Roads, miles away from the nearest stoplight. 

So in recorded history, there is no reason to think that the stoplights needed to be adjusted for safety, other than a belief that non-fatal accidents would be lessened-- but the records show that hasn't resulted since the left-turn arrow stoplights were put in.

Quite the contrary, in 2016 there was a fatality due to stoplight confusion:

Followed by this latest incident at the Stiles Road stoplight.  Two fatal incidents at stoplights in the nearly three years since 2014, when the left-turn arrows were installed and gotten used to, compared to zero for the four years prior-- a zero which the sheriff (and the geniuses at MDOT) used to justify the new turn lights that has increased congestion, but hasn't even lessened crashes or fatalities. 

But we still have proactive traffic enforcement (PTE) going for us, whatever that is.  The common name for PTE is 'suspicion stops', the traffic equivalent of 'pat downs' on suspicious people that police come across while on the foot beat.  In PTE, you need not be speeding to be pulled over or violating any other traffic law, but the officer has a reasonable suspicion that you are otherwise a danger to the safety of others on the roadway. 

As Sheriff Cole does not explain exactly what this proactive policy is, one must assume that it allows his deputies to pull over drivers on US 10 just because they believe a driver may be, for example, driving distracted or while impaired.  This can be a dangerous policy that might create more danger than it fixes. 

Any traffic stop creates hazards.  Provided the car pulls over and does not lead the police on a chase, which is more likely if the proactive policy is based on profiling, the officer still is put in danger just by approaching the car, as MSP Trooper Paul Butterfield found out in 2013.  The driver and passengers may similarly have additional fear and trepidation to an otherwise unwarranted traffic stop, where aggressive police agents look for something to validate their traffic stop. 

The traffic that approaches the scene usually have to use one less lane, and deal with reflexive actions that drivers sometimes have when they see a police car with lights aflashing (rubbernecking and braking), while others drive normal.  Traffic stops often lead to other accidents, and makes the roadway more dangerous during the immediate time the stop is happening.

So creating additional traffic stops based on deputy's whims and biases may not only subject the MCSO to lawsuits (as what happened with Sergeant Cole when he stopped Martin Schilling twice for no reason other than he was related to somebody wanted by the MCSO), but make the roadway less safe for the duration of the stop. 

If I may relate a personal anecdote that happened just two weekends before.  I was approaching Scottville in a vehicle and saw a MSP car perched in the concealing graveyard driveway west of town, saw traffic ahead of me hit brakes, and saw similar behavior on traffic coming at me.  I turned on the bypass and immediately had to drive across the centerline to go around another MSP truck who had just finished up with a traffic stop less than a 100 yards from the turn. 

As I headed north, after noticing another MSP car coming from the north, I noticed that the MSP truck that I passed earlier was coming up from behind me.  So other than direct my attention on the road ahead of me, as I would have liked, I had to periodically look behind me to figure whether he was planning to pull me over or pass me to go where they were needed.  By the time I got to my turn at Sugar Grove, it gave me some relief that he continued straight.  I had never been speeding or otherwise in arrears of the law, but the presence of police on the roadway, three MSP patrols in a two mile distance, made my journey more unsafe. 

This is not to say that patrols are not conducive to safety when used in moderation and correctly.  In the only major study I have seen on the topic, it concluded:  "Our estimates suggest that at least two days of high intensity stationary police presence at a given time interval and location can reduce that areas accident rate by almost 40 percent during the following week. We also find that the presence of a stationary police vehicle can immediately reduce the accident rate by at least 9 percent, while the presence of moving police vehicles can produce the opposite effect."  Sheriff Cole does not put much value on using visible and stationary units, according to my observations. 

Proactive traffic enforcement on a stretch of roadway that has a lot of traffic and no clear enforcement target to focus on is just a bad idea, and once this year's traffic crash statistics are sifted through, the additional patrols and the proactive policies will more than likely only show that the situation was worsened after being adopted.  Just like with the stoplights and their turn arrows.

With all the motorcyclists killed by inattentive drivers in Mason County and Sheriff Cole's inability to have his deputies write even minor citations for the at-fault drivers, his attention should be better spent towards just enforcing the existing laws and talking out on behalf of all of the vulnerable users of the road who are killed without consequences since he's become sheriff.  That would truly be proactive and worthy of a leader looking for doing something to better traffic safety.

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When conditions are decent out, there really shouldn't be a reason why so many accidents continue to happen... as much as I hate to say it I feel that way to many people just are not paying attention to what's going on. I mean I get it that at some point we all get distracted by this or that but I all to often, and I'm sure many others notice it as well, that as you pass someone they are looking at their phone instead of the road. Until such time people when people start paying attention at all times we will probably continue to see accidents continue to happen.

Reading through the fatal UD 10 traffic accident reports for the county over the last eight years has me convinced that over 90% of them could have been prevented by an attentive and safe driver replacing the person who caused the accident.  Relatively few can be attributed to anything else. 

I believe the recent uptick nationally over the last few years in traffic accident and fatalities are due to the distractions of all of the bells and whistles in the newer cars and trucks, plus the smart phones that consume the attentions of drivers.   Unfortunately, you never see any public service announcements anymore explaining and reminding us why driving with distractions is bad.

Just out this morning from the sheriff's office was the toxicology results of the August 5th Jacob Gross accident. 

Jacob had an opioid (Oxycodone), Ecstasy, and alcohol in his system when he crossed the centerline.  Thankfully, his drug problem didn't lead to anybody else dying because of it.  If you're flying high and ruining your life, do us all a favor and stay off the road and let others enjoy their life.

Excellent points. Very interesting article X. It would seem to me that using the term "crash" in compiling the information doesn't seem to emphasize what really took place. I would think calling the vehicle mishaps "collisions" would be more appropriate. It just sounds better. Another thing that would seem to be very important but is not listed is how severe the injuries were from the collisions. There may be 2 or even 0 deaths in a particular year but that may be over shadowed by hundreds of severe injuries.

Instead of the Sheriff concentrating on traffic violators I would like to see him solving the real crimes that he was hired to deal with. Why not take that money and institute an identity crime office for Mason County citizens who have be ripped off by identity thieves. Use law enforcement to apprehend real criminals. 


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