Road Worrier: Wrong-way drivers defy easy solutions

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comJuly 16, 2012 

It is very early in the morning. A driver, fatigued or intoxicated, gets confused.

That’s the usual bleak scenario for crashes that start with drivers who go the wrong way on a freeway. Beyond that, investigators and traffic engineers say, it is hard to explain and harder to prevent the wrong-way crashes that kill about 30 people a year in North Carolina, and 1,300 nationwide.

Lab tests are pending, so we don’t know yet whether Carolina Elizabeth Gonzalez Linares of Morrisville had been drinking before she headed east in the westbound lanes of Interstate 40 in Raleigh early Sunday morning.

A 911 caller reported Linares’ Toyota sedan going the wrong way on I-40 near the South Saunders Street exit shortly after 2 a.m. Linares, 28, drove another five miles before running head-on into a Ford minivan. The crash killed Linares and the truck passenger, Job Misael Hernandez, 17, of Raleigh.

That makes four people who have died this year in wrong-way crashes on Raleigh interstates – all in the wee hours of the morning.

Vidal Fraga-Mejia, 30, was driving west in the eastbound lanes of I-440 in North Raleigh when his car collided with another on March 30 at 2:48 a.m. Fraga-Mejia died. Police said both drivers were intoxicated.

Tshimpangila Junior Bajani, 30, of Raleigh was killed on June 10 at 4:20 a.m. when his car overturned after he swerved to avoid an oncoming car in the westbound lanes of I-440 in West Raleigh. Police said the wrong-way driver, Sarah Aimee Carden of Wake Forest, had a blood-alcohol reading of twice the legal limit.

A Durham man was more fortunate when he saw headlights coming his way on Wade Avenue Extension in West Raleigh at 3:38 a.m. on June 29. He swerved, they crashed, and both drivers were pinned inside their wrecked cars – but uninjured. Police said the other driver, a Hickory man, was drunk.

Investigators often cannot figure out why or where a driver started the wrong-way journey down a high-speed freeway. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says nearly half of these crashes begin with a driver going the right way, and then making a U-turn to go the wrong way.

Otherwise, the ill-fated trip begins with somebody mistaking an exit ramp for an on-ramp.

“At night, people can be disoriented, particularly when there’s not a lot of traffic,” said Eric Rodgman, senior data analyst at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center in Chapel Hill. “When you get on a ramp, you may not be able to tell this is an exit ramp if you don’t see traffic coming out of it.”

Of course, there are plenty of warnings that should get the attention of drivers who are alert and sober.

Big red signs say “Wrong Way” or “Do Not Enter,” sometimes posted low at the very edge of the off-ramp pavement, to catch the eye of that wayward driver. Sometimes there are raised pavement reflectors that shine red for drivers facing in the wrong direction.

“For the most part, I think the signs are adequate,” said Trooper G.L. Ingram, a traffic safety information officer for the State Highway Patrol.

There are pavement arrows and markers that send the same message. Curbs and medians that make it hard for a car to enter a ramp from the wrong direction.

“If a person is intoxicated, they may not be recognizing any of these cues, anyway,” said Kevin Lacy, chief traffic engineer for the state Department of Transportation.

DOT studied the problem in 2006 in response to a rash of wrong-way crashes that killed seven people in the Charlotte area. The report found that 90 percent of wrong-way crashes involve drivers who are either intoxicated or elderly.

These accidents are alarming and often spectacular, but infrequent; they account for less than 0.2 percent of all freeway crashes but more than 5 percent of all freeway crash deaths, DOT reported. They show up in scattered locations, and that makes them difficult to prevent, Lacy said.

A few states have experimented with tire spikes, like the devices used to prevent drivers from going the wrong way into a parking garage or a car-rental lot. But the spikes caused as much damage to law-abiding drivers as to those heading the wrong way, and there were maintenance issues.

“So far, every state that’s had trouble with these crashes has not come up with anything that is proving to be effective,” Lacy said.

Police stopped one woman who had driven more than 20 miles on an interstate near Greensboro a few years ago, fortunately without hurting anybody. She said she didn’t know what to do when she discovered she was going the wrong way, so she kept going.

That inspired simple advice: Stop.

“We tell people that if they find themselves going in the wrong direction, get off the roadway,” Lacy said. “Get on the shoulder and stop. Don’t just continue driving, because that puts everyone else and yourself in danger.”

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