Imagine, you are heading down the highway and suddenly, a vehicle is headed straight towards you, driving the wrong direction in your lane, it’s the most terrifying sight you could imagine. This is known as Wrong-way Driving. Wrong-way driving is not an event that occurs very often, but because of the severity and fatality rate, it is a concern to the transportation leaders in our country. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, about 350 people die in the U.S. every year because of wrong-way driving, representing approximately 1.5 percent of the total number of traffic related fatalities that occur annually. This seems to be a small percentage overall, but wrong-way driving is notorious for its severity rather than frequency. There is a fatality in about 22 percent of all wrong-way crashes, compared to about 0.5 percent of all vehicle crashes, according to federal crash data.
According to a report from the National Transportation Safety Board, factors such as driver condition, i.e. intoxication, driver age, roadway surface conditions, and lighting conditions are among the most significant contributors to wrong-way crashes.
A journal of the Transportation Research Board revealed that approximately 60 percent of wrong-way drivers drive under the influence, nearly 50 percent are impaired by alcohol, about 5 percent are impaired by drugs, and more than 3 percent drink while driving. While alcohol is the main factor for a high proportion of wrong-way accidents, it isn’t the only common denominator. Of the collisions where alcohol is not involved, a disproportionate amount of accidents are caused by drivers over the age of 70 years old.
The NTSB report shows that most wrong-way movements involve a vehicle entering an exit ramp. About 78 percent of all wrong-way crashes occur between 6 pm and 6 am. Wrong-way crashes disproportionately occur on the weekend. Interestingly, about seven out of nine wrong-way collisions occur in the lane closest to the median, also known as fast lane.
Arizona looks better in statistics compared to Texas, California, Florida and six other states. Thanks to Arizona transportation leaders, Arizona is on the forefront of adopting innovative ideas to prevent wrong-way drivers. The Arizona Department of Transportation has taken extensive steps to address the threat of wrong-way drivers. It implemented a smart technology first-of-its-kind thermal camera detection system to decrease crashes. The system includes 90 cameras above exit ramps on Interstate 17 which will detect drivers who enter the ramps going the wrong way. When it detects a wrong-way driver, the system will light up a large, eye-level “Wrong Way” sign with flashing bright red LED lights. It will also track the driver and alert law enforcement and highway officials, who can broadcast warnings on highway message boards, and turn freeway entrance-ramp signals to red.
Wrong-way drivers present an obvious danger to all motorists on our highways. While cities and states should work to improve signs and barriers and utilize ITS-based solutions to reduce or eliminate wrong-way accidents, public awareness along with social responsibility could be an effective way. In addition to engineering and enforcement, what can I do, what can we do to stop wrong-way driving? If you drink alcohol, be an example not to drive impaired. If you’re a young driver, don’t drive when the other passengers are a distraction. If you’re an elderly driver, get evaluated once a year to see if your senses and skill level allow you to safely drive. Let’s make drinking and driving an unpopular thing to do — much like smoking in a day care. Let’s educate the public about the consequences of drunken driving. If we continue to pursue every route possible to prevent drunken driving, we can stop the majority of wrong-way accidents.
Iqbal Hossain is a transportation profession in Phoenix.