Kill a biker, get a highway named after you? That’s the question the American Motorcyclist Assn. is asking in its nationwide campaign to ban the naming of highways after people who have been convicted of serious traffic offenses. First on their list: the Sen. Carl O. Koella Jr. Memorial Highway in Tennessee. Here’s why:
One October evening in 1997, a man driving a minivan on U.S. Route 321 south of Knoxville made a left turn into the path of an oncoming motorcycle. Terry Barnard, 52, of Huron, Ohio, was killed when his motorcycle hit the van, skidded into the van then careened into a car stopped behind it.
Witnesses told police that the van driver pulled to the side of the road, got out of his vehicle, looked around, then got back into the van and drove off. They were able to give police a license number, which was traced to Carl Koella Jr., a member of the Tennessee state Senate for 25 years.
Koella did contact the police himself about an hour after the crash to tell them he thought he might have been involved in an accident. He passed an alcohol test administered several hours later. There were reports that he was confused and disoriented when he talked to police, but friends said it was likely because Koella suffered from cancer and multiple sclerosis.
Blount County, where the accident occurred, had a hard time finding judges and prosecutors who weren’t politically tied to Koella. A special prosecutor asked that Koella be charged with a felony, but that was rejected by a judge who said there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that he knew, or reasonably should have known, that a fatality had occurred. Therefore, leaving the scene of the accident was only a misdemeanor in this case.
A grand jury disagreed and indicted Koella on felony charges, but local prosecutors allowed him to plead no contest to the misdemeanor. He was fined $2,500, ordered to perform 30 days of community service, and his drivers license was suspended for a year. A few months later he died following emergency heart surgery. The state legislature voted to honor him by a naming a stretch of Interstate 140 the Sen. Carl O. Koella Jr. Memorial Highway.
With money donated by outraged motorcyclists from across the country, the AMA rented space on two billboards along the road where Barnard was killed, unofficially naming it the “Terry Barnard Memorial Highway.” A third billboard, blocks from the state capitol, urges drivers to “Watch for Motorcycles” in memory of Barnard.
The Pickerington, Ohio-based organization organized a letter writing campaign to block the memorial highway and, as of mid-summer, no signs had gone up. It is now trying to get legislation in all states that would make it illegal to name a highway after anyone who has been convicted of seriously injuring or killing someone in a traffic accident.
“We don’t oppose honoring Koella in an appropriate way for his long career in public office,” said Terry Lee Cook, the AMA’s state programs development coordinator. “But naming a highway after a driver who caused the death of a motorcyclist is an insult and a flagrant smack in the face to motorcyclists.”
You can find out more about the letter writing campaign and the legislative proposal at the AMA website, www.ama-cycle.org, or by calling (614) 856-1900.