Recent headlines and front-page color photos of wrong-way car crashes make it seem as though they happen a lot. They’re actually fairly rare, accounting for only 3% of accidents on high-speed divided highways, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
Wrong-way collisions make for dramatic headlines and chilling photography, accompanied by video footage from witnesses and street-mounted cameras. Often, the drama of wrong-way crashes unfolds in fireballs against darkened skies, as most happen late at night or early in the morning. They often occur at high-speeds, one driver crashing head-on into another vehicle, leaving multiple fatalities and mangled wreckage that may be unrecognizable as a motor vehicle.
About 360 people are killed annually in about 260 wrong-way crashes; although that is a small percentage of the total number of accidents, and the number of deaths has remained virtually unchanged over a 6-year period, wrong-way crashes are much deadlier than other crashes. NTSB studies show that the fatality rate of wrong-way crashes may be 27 times the fatality rate for other types of crashes. The surprising fact is that many of these accidents are avoidable.
Several recent cases highlight the most prevalent causes of wrong-way crashes. Last week in Tampa, FL, four young college students were killed in a head-on collision with an SUV driven by a 28-year-old wrong-way driver who was also killed. The accident occurred just after 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning, following a party attended by the wrong-way driver. Although toxicology reports have not been completed, witnesses indicated that the driver may have been drinking.
In Pomona, CA, a 21-year-old woman has been charged with six counts of murder in the deaths of her two passengers and four other people in a second car that she hit head-on. The driver, who was convicted of driving drunk in 2010 and only recently had her license reinstated, was reportedly traveling eastbound at speeds near 100 mph in the westbound lanes of the highway. The pre-dawn crash occurred on a Sunday morning.
An SUV driver was killed, and her husband injured, in a 1:30 a.m. Saturday collision with a wrong-way driver in Rochester, NY. The driver who caused the head-on accident was a 37-year-old man. He was seriously injured and unconscious at the scene, but “smelled of alcohol” according to the sheriff’s personnel at the scene. Both of the cars involved in the initial impact spun, involving a third vehicle whose driver was injured, and two other vehicles who sustained damage from the debris.
The common thread here is that these accidents were caused by relatively young drivers who were likely consuming alcohol prior to the accidents, and the accidents occurred in the early hours of weekend days. According to the NTSB, the majority of wrong-way drivers are between the ages of 20 and 50. The primary cause in 60% of wrong-way crashes was alcohol impairment; additionally 9% of wrong-way drivers had previous DUI/DWI convictions. 78% of the accidents occur between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., and 57% occur on weekends, mostly on Sundays.
In the Tampa accident, multiple 911 callers reported the wrong-way driver, but the crash happened before police could block off the roadway. This is the safest way to prevent a head-on collision with a wrong-way driver once he is on the roadway; other methods to stop a wrong-way vehicle are extremely difficult and dangerous for police.
The other opportunity to reduce the number of fatalities from wrong-way crashes is by preventing confused drivers from entering the wrong way in the first place. The NTSB is constantly reviewing roadway markings and signage. Reflective pavement markings help keep drivers in proper lanes, while larger, illuminated, and more frequent signage (One-way, Do Not Enter, Wrong Way) provide clarification and reminders to stay in the proper lane.
Some states have already begun requiring an alcohol ignition interlock (dashboard breathalyzer) for the vehicles of repeat DWI offenders. The NTSB has also recommended that carmakers continue to experiment with an alcohol detection device that would passively measure alcohol impairment for all drivers, not just those with previous offenses. Advances in GPS technology may eventually make it possible to relay automatic alerts and lane closures when a wrong-way vehicle is detected on a highway. With the assistance of these preventative measures, we may eventually see a decrease in the number of fatalities caused by wrong-way drivers.
If you or a loved one has been the victim of a wrong-way accident, the Dolman Law Group will review your case and provide you with a free, no obligation and confidential consultation. Please contact us today at (727) 451-6900.
Dolman Law Group
800 North Belcher Road
Clearwater, FL 33765