BENNINGTON -- A fiery fatal crash on West Road in late May was caused by a drunken driver, according to police.

Toxicology tests show that the blood-alcohol level of John Thomayer, 57, of Bennington, was more than three times the legal limit of .08 when the westbound 2000 Ford Focus he was driving crossed the center line and struck another vehicle, according to Bennington Police Sgt. Lloyd Dean. Thomayer, who was not wearing a seat belt, was killed in the May 29 crash.

He struck a 2000 Volkswagen Bug head-on. It was driven by 54-year-old Peter Rubin of Old Bennington, who suffered extensive injuries.

The crash occurred just east of the border with New York on West Road/Route 9. Rubin’s eastbound vehicle burst into flames on impact with Rubin trapped inside. Officers with the Bennington Police Department, Vermont State Police and the Bennington County Sheriff’s Department worked to free him from the burning vehicle. They used chemical fire extinguishers to knock down flames enough to get to Rubin.

The officers were able to free Rubin, and he was flown to Albany (N.Y.) Medical Center before being transported to the Westchester (N.Y.) Medical Center’s Burn Center for treatment.

Lloyd said it is possible Thomayer could have survived the crash if he had been wearing a seat belt.

Other serious crashes

A rash of serious crashes -- some fatal -- have occurred in the area recently. Two more of the crashes involved alcohol, police said.

Phillip Casey, 24, of County Street, has pleaded not guilty to driving while under the influence of alcohol with an injury resulting. Police said Casey’s BAC was above the legal limit after the May 16 crash on Ore Bed Road. Casey and a passenger in his car both suffered serious injuries.

And in late June, a 16-year-old boy crashed a pickup truck on Middle Pownal Road. Dean said the boy’s BAC was also above the legal limit. The truck flipped end-over-end, but the boy escaped with only a broken leg because he was wearing a seat belt, Dean said.

Police said they have no explanation for the recent spike in alcohol-related crashes. "There is no real cause. Our traffic safety efforts have not faltered. Our DUI efforts have not faltered. Unfortunately, it’s just the way the pendulum is swinging," Dean said.

Bennington Police Chief Richard Gauthier said information shared among other police chiefs shows no specific pattern to when and where crashes occur.

"Accidents are not spread evenly throughout the state. There are high spots and low spots every year," he said. "I think that’s what frustrates people. There isn’t a clear answer."

Fatalities resulting from crashes have also come in spurts, ending a long stretch of no fatalities. Aside from Thomayer, paramedic Dale Long died June 15 when the ambulance he was driving veered off the road. Police have not been able to determine why the ambulance veered off the road.

A local foster dad and his foster daughter were killed when the car he was driving, with several other family members, crossed the center line in Brandon.

And Ellen D. Bindman-Hicks, 17, of North Bennington, was killed in a crash on Route 30 June 18 in Pawlet. Her vehicle crossed the center line and struck a pickup truck head-on, according to police.

"One of the things that we’ve enjoyed for quite a while, that didn’t get a lot of attention, was that we were very low on (fatalities). Low to the point of being nonexistent for quite a while," Gauthier said. "It’s simply the nature of these things ... that you’re going to get highs and lows. That’s the best answer that we can come up with because we haven’t changed any of our practices."

Two other recent crashes have reportedly been caused by drivers falling asleep. Police said William Schmitt, 21, of Easton, Conn., fell asleep at the wheel on Route 7 in Sunderland last Friday. He crossed the center line and struck two vehicles head-on. Schmitt and several others suffered serious injuries. Prosecutors are considering charges.

More recently, a female fell asleep on Route 7 South near the Pownal border last Sunday, according to police. She left the roadway on the right and struck a telephone pole. Her injuries are "manageable," Gauthier said.

Police can do little but encourage people to rest before driving in such situations, Gauthier said.

"It’s tough to patrol for and control people falling asleep at the wheel, or veering off suddenly, or driving too long on too little sleep," he said.

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com