DATABASE: Killer Roads: Families deal with death of loved ones on the interstate

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Editor's note: As the final segment of the Naples Daily News three-day series, two families who lost loved ones in accidents on Interstate 75 speak of their loss and their concerns.

Their lives changed in an instant.

That’s how Bonita Springs residents Joy and Paul Audet, and Fort Myers resident Dave Hall, described the news that loved ones died on Interstate 75.

While I-75 in Collier and Lee counties doesn’t rank in the top 20 most dangerous roads in the United States based upon a recent Scripps Howard News Service study, a total of 18 people lost their lives on Southwest Florida’s portion of the interstate in 2009 — 10 in Collier County and eight in Lee County.

Both families agreed that Southwest Florida drivers need to seriously re-evaluate their driving styles on the interstate, regardless of how much safer officials say the highway may be.

Missing half

“I lost it,” admitted Paul Audet, 48, while sitting in the kitchen of his parents’ Bonita Springs home, next to the multi-colored daisies he had brought his mom.

His father, Leonard Audet, died exiting I-75 at Bonita Beach Road on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle on Oct. 11. A Florida Highway Patrol accident report said he died after his motorcycle struck a concrete curb, ejecting him into the grass median.

For Paul Audet, his father’s tragic ending especially weighed on him. Just hours before the accident, the family had enjoyed breakfast and a motorcycle ride. At some point, the pair got separated. Paul Audet took a different route home.

“We had a great day. We went all the way down to Marco Island,” Paul Audet said. “Coming back was a nightmare.”

Getting bogged down on the “what ifs” doesn’t do any good, Paul Audet said.

He got separated from his father after a friend in the group was involved in a separate accident on the Pine Ridge Road exit.

“I blamed my friend for a long time, because we (the group) broke up after his accident,” Audet said.

After his father’s death, Audet said he went over each possible scenario and wondered if he had been with his father, would it have made a difference.

That “maybe” is there, he said.

“But you can’t blame anyone,” Audet said.

For the family, Leonard Audet’s death was especially hard, because they had been planning a cruise for friends and family to celebrate the couples’ 50th wedding anniversary two weeks after the accident.

“I had to call and cancel, because instead of celebrating their 50th, we were putting him in the ground,” said Paul Audet, as his mother sighed and teared up.

A native of Rhode Island and Army veteran, Leonard Audet had become a great-grandfather on Sept. 24. The owner of Audet Millwright, a machinery company in Rhode Island, Audet had retired a few years ago and the couple lived most of the year in Bonita Springs after initially establishing roots there 22 years ago.

Now Joy and her oldest son both say that they don’t know how they could deal with Leonard’s loss without each other for support.

“He’s been my rock,” said Joy Audet of her son, adding that she never stops missing her husband. “If I didn’t have him I would not have made it.”

The Audets said speed wasn’t a factor in the accident, but that they urge drivers to be careful on the road. A handmade cross now marks the spot where the Audet patriarch died and serves as a reminder of the dangers of the interstate, Paul Audet said.

A brother’s love

Simply put, Dave Hall said his brother’s death was due to being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

“(Michael) was an innocent man just cruising along,” said Hall, 64, in his Fort Myers home last week. “Because of their arguing, one of them (the suspects) drifted over and took him right out and pushed him off, right into a pole head-first … he died instantly.”

According to the preliminary crash report, Michael Hall, 62, died after a maroon SUV heading southbound on the interstate left the roadway into the grass, then re-entered the highway striking Hall’s Honda motorcycle and a silver Toyota passenger car.

Reports said that prior to the crash, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office received a report of two vehicles involved in a gunfire exchange near Bayshore Road in North Fort Myers. One of the vehicles was similar in description to the SUV that crashed on the interstate.

Hall was sitting in his living room when he got the call.

“All he (my friend) said was my brother’s name,” said Hall recalling that fateful conversation. “The other guy that was with him took the phone and said Mike was in a bad accident.”

Hall said he then asked if Michael was dead. His friend’s response confirmed his biggest fear.

“My brother was one hell of a guy,” Hall said with a bitter-sweet smile. “You’d take him anywhere and he’d make a friend right off the bat. He was just funny and made you laugh all the time.”

The Massachusetts natives shared a love for billiards, Hall said.

But Hall said his brother, an Air Force veteran, was an avid motorcycle enthusiast and that his Honda Gold Wing was his pride and joy. The Gold Wing is a touring motorcycle, usually used for long-distance drives or heavy commuting. Hall said Mike was coming back from a weekend getaway at the time of the crash.

The two men who are accused of causing the crash were seen fleeing from the red SUV armed with handguns, according to Sheriff’s Office reports. They were last seen running west behind Fox Electronics in the nearby industrial park.

Hall said the family, which includes Mike’s three surviving siblings and his son, Brett, hopes the authorities are able to soon give them some measure of closure by catching those responsible.

As of Monday, Lee County sheriff’s officials said the search for the suspects as well as a black pickup truck continues, and that anyone with information should contact authorities.

Preventing heartbreak

Whether or not the accidents could have been prevented, the Audets and Hall said they still have to live with the fact that their family members are gone.

But that doesn’t mean that others shouldn’t be spared of going through their traumatic experiences, Paul Audet said, adding that he hopes people realize how an accident like his father’s can happen to anyone.

For her part, Joy Audet said she knows that some people out there will say, “Well, it can’t happen to me.”

“It can happen,” Joy Audet said. “My husband was an excellent driver. That’s why it was such a shock when it happened.”

People, Joy Audet said, need to learn how to drive a little more conservatively on the highway.

Hall agreed.

He acknowledges that his brother’s death may not have been preventable, because of the nature of the incident.

However, Hall said nowadays he sees more and more drivers playing it fast and loose to save 10 seconds off their travel time.

“It’s not worth it,” Hall said. “I’ve had plenty of people behind me, blowing the horn to go faster. Then they zip around me and next thing you know I’m sitting next to them at the light.”

In the past five years, he said he has seen driver courtesy go out the window.

Hall’s feelings were echoed in a 2009 study by AAA on traffic safety culture, in which 70 percent of the 2,500 people surveyed listed aggressive drivers as a concern for their safety. Seventy-nine of those surveyed listed distracted drivers as reasons for concerns, while 56 percent listed speeding as a major concern.

When asked if his friends and family have become more cautious with driving as a result of Mike’s death, Hall said he doesn’t know, but that he hopes they took away a lesson from the family’s loss.

“I think that if they’re not, that they should. Everybody should,” Hall said. “You’re only talking about a few seconds delay to get to where you were going. If the speed limit is 50, and you’re going 70, you’re not going to get there that much earlier … you might not even get there at all.”

State-approved markers memorialize those killed on Florida highways

DATABASE: Collier County traffic fatality statistics 2006-2008

DATABASE: U.S. Highway Deaths 1994-2008

From interstates to country highways, where you drive can be dangerous

For stories and to navigate national and local data about Killer Roads.

Click here for the database center at naplesnews.com

Connect with Elysa Batista at www.naplesnews.com/staff/elysa_batista

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