GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The man killed in a wrong-way crash on US-131 in metro Grand Rapids Sunday morning was a pastor who had worked with several local churches.
Dean Elliott, 63, of Byron Center, was killed around 8:30 a.m. Sunday when a vehicle headed south in the northbound lanes near Burton Street hit his car head-on.
If there is one word that helped define Pastor Dean Elliott, friends say it’s love.
“He loved God. He loved Jesus Christ. He loved his family. He loved his children. He loved the church. He loved the pastors in India. He just loved everybody he met,” said Pastor Joe Coffman of Holland’s Northpoint Assembly of God.
“He had a gift of winsomeness with people that just drew them into the sphere he lived in,” he added.
Coffman first met Elliott in college over 40 years ago. While their missions often took them miles apart, the friendship remained strong.
“He spent a lot of time in the mission field overseas. He’d been to the Middle East. He’d been to Europe. He been to other countries like that,” said Coffman. “But he spent the bulk of his time in India, ministering to pastors there, helping them to build their credentials and become stronger in the faith.”
Coffman said Dean was an evangelist.
“He led people to Jesus Christ. And that was his greatest joy in life, to see people come to faith in Jesus Christ,” said Coffman.
Elliott was killed Sunday morning traveling to a congregation without a pastor in Manistee for Palm Sunday services.
A driver heading south on US-131 near Burton Street struck Elliott’s vehicle head-on as he traveled north.
The wrong-way driver, a 30-year-old Grand Rapids man whose name was not released, was hospitalized in critical condition. Michigan State Police said alcohol was believed to have been involved.
There have been nine wrong-way crashes in Kent County since January 2022, five of which were on US-131 near Grand Rapids. Last month, three people were seriously injured in one such crash.
Across Michigan, there are hundreds of wrong-way crashes every year. A Target 8 analysis of the Michigan Traffic Crash database found 449 wrong-way crashes in 2021, the most recent year with complete numbers.
There were seven fatalities and 179 injuries as a result. Drinking or drug use was involved in 22% of the crashes. In 72%, the driver was alone in the vehicle, suggesting as some studies have, that the absence of a passenger to warn the driver may be a contributing factor.
Exit ramps are marked to try to keep drivers from entering the wrong way. The Michigan Department of Transportation has also installed sensor-activated LED lights that flash to warn drivers they’re going the wrong way at certain ramps. When they are triggered, MDOT workers notify police.
In a statement released Monday, MDOT said it is “constantly trying to improve and supplement the system to increase safety.”
“Over the years and throughout the state, we’ve implemented measures to prevent wrong-way drivers and we will continue to do so,” the statement continued. “We’ve installed additional wrong way signage, adjusted the height of wrong way signs, added reflective delineators, and installed wrong-way detection systems. All interchanges are peppered with large red and white signs that say, WRONG WAY DO NOT ENTER.”
It said the sensor light systems were in place at the US-131 exit ramps to Hall and Wealthy streets in Grand Rapids, as well as at Stadium Drive in Kalamazoo and the exit from I-94 to Dickman Road in Battle Creek. It said it has plans to add more “when funding becomes available.”
On Sunday, MSP was still working to determine where the wrong-way driver entered the highway. MDOT added that “the only common factor with these types of crashes is that the driver has been impaired in some way.”
Elliott leaves behind a wife and two adult children.
State police said alcohol appears to be a factor in the wrong-way crash.
“We’re all sinners. We’re actually praying for the person that hit him,” said Coffman. “There’s no vengeance. There’s no thought of payment on that part. We just want to forgive him and see him live a full life in Jesus Christ.”
But along with the sorrow he’s dealing with, Coffman also has hope that others will learn from the tragedy.
“I hope that we see that our actions have consequences with them, and that it’s up to us to make choices that are wise and profitable to others, and not foolish decisions,” said Coffman.