Tragic Trend: 'Wrong-Way' driving crashes

The Shawnee News-Star
Wrong way crash

Fatal wrong way crashes are increasing significantly, according to new analysis by AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Fatal wrong-way driving crashes on the nation's highways are a persistent and devastating threat that is only getting worse. Oklahoma is no exception, with 24 motorists killed on Oklahoma roads in 17 wrong-way crashes during 2019, according to the Oklahoma Highway Safety Office.

AAA research has found that alcohol impairment, older age and driving without a passenger increase risks of wrong-way crashes.

According to the latest data analysis from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, there were more than 2,000 deaths nationwide from wrong-way driving crashes on divided highways between 2015 and 2018, an average of approximately 500 deaths a year. That is up 34 percent from the 375 deaths annually from 2010 to 2014.

"Wrong-way crashes on divided highways are often fatal as they are typically head-on collisions," Dr. David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, said. "And unfortunately, as the data shows, fatalities from these crashes are on the rise."

Researchers examined eight factors related to these types of crashes, and three stood out:

• alcohol-impairment,

• older age and

• driving without a passenger

Six in ten wrong-way crashes involved an alcohol-impaired driver. Those with blood alcohol concentrations over the legal limit of 0.08 (grams per deciLiter) were significantly more likely to be wrong-way drivers than non-alcohol-impaired drivers involved in the same crashes.

Impairment is on the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) MOST WANTED LIST of Transportation Safety Improvements, which is the agency’s premier advocacy tool. The list identifies the top safety improvements that can prevent crashes, minimize injuries and save lives. Impairment in transportation is not limited to just alcohol; it also includes impairment by other drugs—legal or illicit.

“Alcohol impairment is, by far, the single most significant factor in the majority of wrong-way driving crashes, which unfortunately has not changed since the NTSB issued its Wrong-Way Driving special investigation report in 2012,” NTSB Director of the Office of Highway Safety, Dr. Rob Molloy said.

“The important work done by AAA shows that we need to redouble our efforts to address this safety hazard," Malloy said. "We know that interventions like ignition interlock devices for all offenders and high-visibility enforcement operations will reduce these types of devastating crashes.”

AAA works with the NTSB and other traffic safety organizations to educate drivers on the deadly impact of wrong-way driving. In light of these latest research findings, AAA and the NTSB are urging state leaders and transportation and safety agencies to adopt driver-based countermeasures that address factors, such as alcohol ignition interlocks, strengthened deterrence strategies like sobriety checkpoints, driver refresher courses for older adults and laws to help identify medically at-risk drivers, both physically and cognitively, to keep everyone safely driving as long as possible, and installation of more highly visible signs and signals.

An alcohol ignition interlock device prevents a vehicle from starting until the driver provides a breath sample that registers below a pre-set low limit, usually around a BAC of .02.

The data also shows that drivers over age 70 are more at risk of wrong-way driving than their younger counterparts. Previous Foundation research from the AAA Longitudinal Research on Aging Drivers (LongROAD) project found that older drivers aged 75-79 spent less time on the road and drove fewer miles per trip than younger age groups.  And yet, this same age group is over-represented in wrong-way crashes. Sometimes, physical and cognitive issues may contribute to confusion.

A passenger's presence may offer some protection against being a wrong-way driver, as nearly 87 percent of wrong-way drivers were alone. Passengers may alert drivers that they are entering a one-way road, preventing them from entering the highway in the wrong direction, or alerting them to their error, helping the driver take corrective action before a crash occurs.