Photo by Alexandre Boucher

Climbing rates of fatal wrong-way crashes due to three primary factors

From AAA

Fatal wrong-way driving crashes on our nation’s highways are a persistent and devastating threat. AAA’s new nationwide research found that 2008 people were killed in wrong-way driving crashes on divided highways between 2015 and 2018. That represents an average of approximately 500 deaths a year. In Florida, 135 people were killed during that same time period, an average of approximately 34 deaths a year. That’s a startling number, even if it is lower than the previous five year period.

Researchers found that the odds of being a wrong-way driver increased with alcohol-impairment, older age, and driving without a passenger.

According to the latest data analysis from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety
Total wrong-way crash fatalities (2010-2014) Average number of fatalities per year (2010-2014) Total wrong way crash fatalities (2015-2018) Average number of fatalities per year (2015-2018) Change in average number of fatalities
Nationally 1,877 375.4 2,008 502.0 33.7%
Florida 175 35 135 33.8 -3.6%

 

“Wrong-way crashes on divided highways are often fatal as they are typically head-on collisions,” said Mark Jenkins, spokesman, AAA – The Auto Club Group. “My wife and I were traveling with our 1-year-old son, when we were nearly struck by a wrong way driver. We know how fortunate we were to get out of the way; but sadly, many of the fatalities in this report represent innocent people who were not so lucky.”

According to the data, half of the deaths recorded in the table above were the wrong-way drivers themselves (52.8%). While a small percentage were their passengers (5.7%), about four in ten (41.1%) were occupants of other vehicles.

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

  • Alcohol-impairment
  • Older age
  • 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 g/dl* were significantly more likely to be wrong-way drivers than non-alcohol-impaired drivers involved in the same crashes.

Blood Alcohol Concentration (g/dl) No. of Wrong-Way Drivers (%)
BAC < 0.01 1053 (36%)
BAC 0.01-0.49 62 (2.1%)
BAC 0.05-0.79 52 (1.8%)
BAC ≥ 0.08 1757 (60.1%)
Grams per deciLiter

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,” said NTSB Director of the Office of Highway Safety, Dr. Rob Molloy. “We know that interventions like ignition interlock devices for all offenders and high-visibility enforcement operations will reduce these types of devastating crashes.”

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.  It is the best countermeasure we have to separate drinking from driving.

Older Drivers are at a higher risk of driving the wrong-way

The data also shows that drivers over age 70 are more at risk of wrong-way driving than their younger counterparts. The reasons could vary from fatigue, compromised vision, or confusion. 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.

Driving with a Passenger can help

A passenger’s presence may offer some protection against being a wrong-way driver, as nearly 87% 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. This is especially useful when driving through unfamiliar areas.

What to do if you encounter a wrong-way driver

  • Slow down
  • Move as far to the right as possible
  • Avoid overly aggressive evasive reactions that may cause you to lose control of the vehicle
  • Honk your horn, flash your headlights, and turn on your hazard lights
  • Pull over as soon as possible and call 911 to report the situation
  • When driving at night on a multi-lane highway, travel in the center lane so you can move to the right or left to avoid a wrong-way driver

AAA and the NTSB remind drivers to use common sense before getting behind the wheel.

  • If you are driving, don’t drink. If you are drinking, don’t drive.  If you consume marijuana or alcohol or use potentially impairing prescription medications, then don’t drive.  And if you’re going to drive, then don’t consume these substances.
  • Stay alert. Stop driving if you become sleepy because you could fall asleep at any time. Fatigue impacts reaction time and judgment, causing people who are very tired to behave in similar ways to those who are drunk.

Methodology: AAA Foundation researchers examined the number of fatal wrong-way crashes and the number of people killed using data from NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). Characteristics of wrong-way drivers were compared with “right-way” drivers in the same crash to identify factors associated with increased odds of being a wrong-way driver in these types of crashes.  

1 COMMENT

  1. I have noticed in different parts of the country, the counties themselves are partially at fault. While the area residents are familiar with the road layout and directions, visitors are not. Example: exiting a highway, the exit may split left and right to go in either direction. Sometimes, the entrance onto the highway may be presented the same way, but one is to exit the highway and one is to enter the highway. This has caused confusion while traveling the country to determine what the thoughts of the designer of the entrances and exit were. When needing to make a quick decision, you also need to consider the oncoming traffic to avoid an accident or the impatience of those in cars behind you. More standards designs should be applied when designing entrances and exits to and from highways.

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