Fatal Flaws: looking for answers on 5th Street
Design changes have been the focus following crash fatalities on 5th Street, but the story is more complex than that.
In response to recent fatalities on 5th Street, the community and media impulse has been to focus on the road itself, a straight, uninterrupted, two-way double-laned mile-long stretch of road south of town that is certainly asking for trouble. Indeed, any uninterrupted stretch of road can invite trouble if a driver is traveling too fast, and there are plenty of them in the counties around Charlottesville, where the vast majority of fatal crashes take place. The City has lowered the speed limit from 45mph to 40mph on 5th Street and plans to hire an engineering firm to come up with ways to redesign the road, such as adding stoplights, building a roundabout, and even reducing the number of lanes, and just posted a survey to collect community input about what should be done. That’s good. Clearly, the road is dangerously designed and has been for a long time. However, a closer look at the accidents and fatalities that have recently occurred on 5th Street, and particularly at the behavior of the drivers, shows that none of the design and infrastructure measures that have been suggested would have likely prevented these heartbreaking tragedies. In fact, among the young drivers who survived, there’s evidence to suggest that some could still be a danger to others.
The latest fatality on 5th Street, which occurred on New Year's Day this year at 10:07 pm, involved two SUVs that collided when one of the SUVs made an improper lane change at the 900 block of Fifth Street. According to police reports, the accident was speed and distracted driver-related. A female passenger in one of the SUVs, Jamie Reibsome, 35, of Richmond died at the scene, and the driver of the vehicle, 45-year old Kevin Key of Charlottesville was treated at UVa for life-threatening injuries. The driver in the 2nd SUV was not hurt. According to police Key was charged with an improper lane change and driving on a revoked/suspended license. According to court records, Key had pleaded guilty to fleeing the scene of an accident and eluding police on three separate occasions between 2007 and 2020.
In July 2020, Dustin Ryan Parr, 30, struck a vehicle on Richmond Road in his Toyota pickup truck and fled the scene. The Emergency Communications Center received multiple 911 calls after that reporting that a Toyota pickup truck was seen driving erratically at several locations around Charlottesville. Police reports later confirmed that Parr was drunk, traveling at a high rate of speed, and not wearing a seatbelt when he finally ran a red light at the intersection of 5th Street and Harris Road and struck a sedan. The driver of the Sedan survived, Parr did not.
When Aaron A. Johnson, 27, collided with the Mazda Sedan that local music teacher Eric Betthauser was driving on Nov. 22, 2016, he had run a red light and was traveling 94 MPH, according to the computer data collected by police from his crushed Camaro, as Betthauser was making a legal left turn at the 5th Street/Harris Road intersection. Johnson was also driving drunk at 6:30 pm. Betthauser died at the scene. Almost two years later Johnson was sentenced to 10 years in prison for killing Betthauser, though seven of those years were suspended, giving him a three-year jail sentence. A year earlier, Johnson was sent back to jail while he was out on bond and awaiting trial after testing positive for cocaine use. Presumably, Johnson has completed his sentence.
In October 2018 20-year old Quintus Brooks, who was a passenger in the car 21-year old Jerrod Cortez Wells was driving, died when Wells lost control of the car while traveling at a high rate of speed (the two were also not wearing seat-belts) and struck a tree near the intersection of 5th Street and Berring Street at 5:34 am. Wells was later charged with felony possession of a firearm and reckless driving and DUI manslaughter for which he was sentenced to 12 months in prison with 6 months suspended. The City’s first official memorial on 5th Street was created for Brooks. Early last month, Wells was arrested for his 2nd DWI offense.
Just after being released from jail, the mother of twins, 28-year old Devin Stinnie and Damian Stinnie, learned that her boys had been in a car crash on 5th Street near Ridge Street at 3:43 am on October 10, 2020, and that Devin had been killed and that Damian was in critical condition. Speed was a factor, according to police reports. Another passenger in the car, Scottsville resident Rashod Walton, 23, was also killed. Damian, who was driving the car, survived, but he faces a jury trial in September on a reckless driving and DUI manslaughter charge. Court records show Damian has a history of speeding charges and that his driver’s license was suspended four times.
“Families are grieving and some are still looking for answers,” wrote Binta Rose, whose son, Rahmean Rose, 23, died on Fifth Street in August 2020 at the intersection of Cleveland Road when the motorcycle he was driving collided with another. “ While we wait for answers we still want to save the next life. No one should have to experience the pain and void the Rose, Brooks, Stinnie, Gough family and many more we don't know by name.”
Indeed, when comes to the pain and the void caused by reckless driving there’s plenty to go around. As Albemarle County Police Chief Ron Lantz said last year, "Albemarle County roads are some of the most dangerous in the Commonwealth." Indeed, while there were 3 fatalities in Charlottesville in 2021, according to the Traffic Records Electronic Data System (TREDS) data, there were more than five times as many in Albemarle County (16), along with 15 more in Louisa, Nelson, Fluvanna, and Greene Counties.
Just recently, Eric Hanner, 18, was killed in a speed-related crash just south of Valentine Mill Road in Louisa County when he lost control of his vehicle and struck a tree. He was also not wearing a seat belt. A quick look at the TREDS map shows numerous crashes, injuries, and fatalities in our surrounding counties. For example, Stony Point Road in Albemarle County has always been particularly dangerous. You can go back 5 years on the TREDS map and see crash after crash along the road. Austen French Jones, 33, died in a two-vehicle crash between Stony Point Pass and Turkey Sag Road last August, and last May Gwendolyn Tupelo, 18, died in a 1 am crash on Stoney Point Road near the Key West Neighborhood. Both of them were not wearing seatbelts, and in Tupelo’s case, alcohol was involved, according to the crash report.
In 2020, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that injuries and violence - including motor vehicle crashes, suicide, or homicides - were the leading cause of death in the U.S., by a long shot, among those age 44 and under. So yes, the fatal crashes that have recently occurred on 5th Street draw attention to the street’s dangerous design - but they also draw attention to something even more troubling and complex - the various signs of trouble in the lives of young drivers that often precede these tragedies.