Police can calculate how fast a vehicle was going from these distinctive tracks, called yaw marks.
Jessica Marie Lewis has been charged with involuntary manslaughter for the deaths of her daughter and ex-husband.
"Let me grab my phone– I'm expecting a victim's family to call."
That's Sergeant Sean Hackney on November 17, the morning after the fifth person has died in less than a week on an Albemarle County road. He's operating on an hour-and-a-half of sleep, and all the officers in Albemarle police's traffic unit are working a fatality.
At the Albemarle police station on 5th Street, the bland cubicles stand in sharp contrast to the grisly scenes officers encounter out on the street. A map of the county is dotted with pushpins– 19 of them, representing all the locations where people have had fatal encounters with vehicles this year.
There are motorcycle accidents– three of them. There's the tragedy of backing up and realizing too late that a child is behind the car. There are the seemingly inexplicable single-car accidents. Sergeant Hackney has seen them all.
Scottsville Road has had two deaths. Earlier this year, Black Cat Road had two in a row.
"We do see geographical trends," says a clearly frustrated Hackney. "Right now, it's all over the county south of 64."
But why the recent spate of deaths, pushing Albemarle to 19 so far this year, the highest death toll since 2003's record 24 fatalities?
'What we see over and over again are speed, seatbelts, and alcohol," says Hackney. "We see at least one of those in most accidents."
The vast majority have all three factors, and Hackney points out that impaired driving isn't limited to alcohol, that driving while taking a prescription medication– particularly one that warns against use with alcohol or while operating heavy machinery– can constitute driving under the influence.
"It's amazing how many times you'll see the prescription bottles at the crash scene," says Hackney, who hopes that reconstructing the components of a crash will go beyond answering questions and hopefully save some lives.
"Sometimes I can tell what happened before and after," he says, "but I can't tell what made them swerve."
He says he doesn't know why Jane McKay, 76, apparently veered off Scottsville Road and down an embankment November 8. She was not wearing a seatbelt and died a week later.
Just two days afterward came the horrific accident on Half Mile Branch Road in Crozet. There, around 7:50pm on November 10, Amber Leigh Johnson, 20, and her father, Michael Johnson, 40, lost their lives after returning from dinner at Cheeseburger in Paradise, where Amber worked. Her mother, driver Jessica Lewis, 36, crashed into a tree and has been charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter as well as driving under the influence.
"She was going a minimum of 85 miles per hour," says Hackney. He says he makes that claim from the yaw marks on the road, which leave a distinct pattern from which police can calculate an approximate speed.
Half Mile Branch Road is a narrow two-lane road with hills. "That road is known as the roller coaster road," says Hackney. "Unfortunately, it just takes a second." He notes that Lewis, the wreck's sole survivor, was the only one wearing a seatbelt.
Speed and seatbelts factored in again the very next day, a bright Friday morning when Honda Civic driver Samuel A. Wells entered eastbound I-64 and slammed into 59-year-old Larry L. Taylor's 1985 Ford Ranger in the far left lane. The pickup rolled at least three times, and Taylor, who wasn't wearing a seatbelt, was partially ejected from the truck and died at the scene. His cousin, D.J. Taylor, was thrown from the truck but survived. Wells, 25, has been charged with reckless driving in the November 11 incident.
The deadly trio of speed, seatbelts, and alcohol may have been to blame on November 16 when 24-year-old Amy Ouypron headed south on Scottsville Road around 10pm. Police say she veered off the road, over-corrected, and then slammed into a northbound SUV. Ouypron, who had allegedly been drinking, wasn't wearing a seatbelt and died at the scene.
Last year, seven of the 12 people who died in Albemarle weren't wearing seatbelts. This year, the numbers are grimmer. Of the 12 deaths from car crashes, 10 people didn't use a seatbelt. After generations have grown up hearing "seatbelts save lives," why are so many unbuckled?
Hackney mentions an urban legend about a person who was cut in half by a seatbelt. That's nothing he's ever seen.
In the Scottsville Road crash the night before, two women were in the SUV that Ouypron hit. Only one was wearing a seatbelt and had relatively minor injuries. "The other had more significant injuries– broken bones and a head injury," Hackney says.
Nothing makes the point better, he says, than a crash in which the person not wearing a seatbelt dies, and one wearing one doesn't.
He has one other theory. "It's not scientific, but the person who decides not to wear a seatbelt is more likely to drink and to speed," says Hackney. "That's what I see."
Cruel myth of country living
Fresh air aside, you're much safer in the city than in the bucolic countryside, according to UVA professor Bill Lucy, who's done studies on the menace of rural living.
"The irony is, it's commonly believed that being in the outer area is safer than in the big city," says Lucy. "It's always the outer counties that have the greatest fatalities."
Albemarle ranks nearly four times more dangerous than larger, denser Fairfax County in traffic deaths per 100,000– 13.2 here compared to 3.37 in Fairfax.
"Albemarle is not as dangerous as Greene and Fluvanna," Lucy points out. "Throughout the state, low-density counties have higher fatalities." And the dangers that typically kill country folk aren't homicidal maniacs– they're drivers on those beautiful back roads.
Why so dangerous? Lucy lists the two-lane roads, which are not lit at night and can have limited visibility. They don't have shoulders. Add alcohol and speeding, and it's a disaster waiting to happen. Oh, and look out for deer.
In contrast, Charlottesville's two-lane roads have speed limits of 25mph and 35mph, and so far for 2011, the city has no traffic fatalities.
"People are driving slower– that's crucial," says Lucy. "Even a pedestrian can survive at 25mph."
In Albemarle County in the past seven years, 90 people have died in traffic accidents. During that same time, there have been just six homicides.
Driving America's highways is more dangerous than going to war. Since 2002, 6,290 Americans have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year, 33,000 people died in automobile accidents nationally– and that was the lowest number since 1949, according to the Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
People tend to fear death from a stranger, but statistically, a stranger is 15 times more likely to kill you accidentally in a car than in a homicide, says Lucy.
"It's really unpleasant driving at night in Albemarle County," he says.
"Worst day of my life– ever"
Debbie Shipp will never forget the 2:30am phone call on January 23.
"A young voice said, 'Your son's been in an accident.' It was like a bad dream," she says.
The connection was bad, and she lost contact. Even now, it's still a blur, but she also remembers hearing, "It doesn't look good."
Shipp, the Albemarle County Circuit Court clerk, talked to a police officer, who told her to wait and he'd call her back. "Fifteen minutes seemed like two hours," she recounts. "I said, 'I'm going there.'"
Officers were on the way to her house when she arrived at Markwood Road near Davis Shop Road in White Hall. "I needed to know," says Shipp. "I couldn't wait."
Her son, David Shipp Jr., 21 years old, had been at a friend's house. "He'd gotten some new speakers he wanted a friend to hear," says his mother.
He was traveling north on Markwood Road when his BMW went off the road and flipped three times. David and his passenger, Darrell Harris, were both thrown from the car. David died at the scene.
"They said if he'd been wearing a seatbelt, he would have lived," says his father, David Shipp Sr., his voice breaking.
The elder Shipp says he can't look at photos of his son.
"To be frank with you, it's still painful to talk about it," he says. "It hurts so much."
A supervisor at North Anna Power Station, David Shipp Sr. had helped his son get a job after Albemarle High School, and the two went to work together every day.
"He was happy-go-lucky," says Shipp. "Everybody liked him. He was a fun-loving guy, and he had a lot of friends."
Ten months later, the elder Shipp thinks about young men and the movies that show speeding in hopped-up cars. "David had one too," says the father. "I blame myself. They don't realize how short life is. They don't think about the outcome when they're out hot-rodding. I did it myself. In a blink, your life can change. In a matter of seconds..."
"My heart goes out to those families," says Debbie Shipp of the most recent victims. "It's just devastating for the families."
Says Debbie Shipp, "I've preached to my kids their whole lives– think about how any decision you make affects the people you love. It's doesn't just affect you."
Unfortunately, Debbie and David Shipp aren't the only parents this year who've lost a child in a moment that changed everything. Stephen Heim was 19 when he died January 1. Jesse Clark was 21. Alegna Wingfield was 5. Matthew Crawford was 23. Yunze "James" Sun was 15. The list goes on and on.
"It's almost like you've been inducted into a club you don't want to be in," says Debbie Shipp.