I-96 fatality spurs effort to make medians safer

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

A project pushed Monday by Steve Kiefer drew heavy hitters — General Motors chief executive Mary Barra, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, state Transportation Director Kirk Steudle.

But Kiefer would have traded them all for one person — his son Mitchel.

Mitchel, whose photos adorned the walls during a news conference, died in an auto wreck on Interstate 96 last year. He was 18.

And that’s why the dignitaries had assembled at the Detroit Athletic Club. They joined together to announce a first-ever public-private partnership that will install a cable barrier along the median where the crash occurred.

The Kiefer Foundation and the state Department of Transportation will pay $300,000 to place 1.7 miles of cable near Webberville east of Lansing.

The cable would have prevented Mitchel’s accident, said his dad. A distracted driver had struck Mitchel’s car from behind, pushing it across the narrow median, where he was broadsided by a truck.

“These things can destroy a family,” said Kiefer, purchasing chief at General Motors. “It can take you to the depths of despair or you can repurpose your life and help changed the course of history.”

Kiefer and his family chose the later, hoping the cable will prevent similar accidents in perpetuity.

The state warmly welcomed the help. Calley said he hopes the project also will raise awareness of the dangers of distracted driving.

“It has the potential to save lives,” he said.

State transportation officials already were working to reduce the number of traffic fatalities.

The transportation department had started a pilot program in 2008 that installed 380 miles of cable along narrow medians throughout the state, said Steudle. Four more projects will lay 19.5 miles of cable by 2022 at a cost of $4.5 million.

He said the cable barriers have reduced the number of cross-median crashes by 87 percent.

“At the end of the day, one fatality is too many,” said Steudle.

Barra said the automaker also is working on the issue of distracted driving. She said it accounts for 10 percent of crash fatalities.

One reason GM supports self-driving cars is safety, she said.

“We have much more to do,” she said.

As for the person who wasn’t there Monday, Mitchel would have been preparing to begin his second year at Michigan State University, said his father. He was going to major in neuroscience and wanted to be a scientist. Teachers said he was smart enough to become one.

“He was just a college freshman with his whole life and world in front of him,” said Kiefer. “He was an amazing young man who would have changed the world.”

Through the foundation named after him, Mitchel will still be getting that chance, said his dad.


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Twitter: @francisXdonnell