Wrong-di­rec­tion driv­ing of­ten fa­tal

State adds signs, re­flec­tors, ar­rows on road­ways, but crashes con­tinue

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - CLARA TUR­NAGE

Two wrong-way signs frame an off-ramp near where a 21-year-old Lit­tle Rock woman died in early Jan­uary.

Red, re­flec­tive in­di­ca­tors de­signed to dis­suade drivers from us­ing the ramp to en­ter In­ter­state 40 dot the road­way, and ar­rows em­bed­ded in the ground warn drivers that they are go­ing the wrong way.

Yet in the early morn­ing of Jan. 6, Bri­ana Carter en­tered I-40 trav­el­ing west in the east­bound lane, struck an am­bu­lance and was killed.

The crash hap­pened de­spite a con­certed ef­fort by state high­way of­fi­cials to re­duce the num­ber of wrong-way crashes. In 2018, the Arkansas Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion con­cluded a $3.1 mil­lion project to re­duce such in­ci­dents, but wrong­way crashes con­tinue to pose a deadly and un­pre­dictable

threat to drivers in the state.

Ac­cord­ing to the Fed­eral High­way Ad­min­is­tra­tion, 300 to 400 peo­ple die each year in wrong-way crashes across the coun­try, which is about 1 per­cent of all ve­hic­u­lar fa­tal­i­ties.

A wrong-way crash “is nor­mally head-on and hard to avoid,” said Lt. Brad Lann, who works in the Arkansas State Po­lice’s High­way Pa­trol Ad­min­is­tra­tion and has in­ves­ti­gated mul­ti­ple wrong­way crashes. “One per­son go­ing 70. The other go­ing 70. When two cars hit head-on at that rate of speed, it’s a very strong im­pact and can be very fa­tal.”

De­spite more than 6,300 signs, 2,000 pave­ment mark­ers and 800 ramp re­flec­tors added on road­ways in the state over the past two years, at least 10 peo­ple died in wrong-way crashes in 2018, ac­cord­ing to pre­lim­i­nary data from Arkansas State Po­lice crash re­ports.

Andy Brewer, the Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment’s as­sis­tant di­vi­sion head of plan­ning, said the onus to travel safely is on drivers, too.

“From an en­gi­neer­ing stand­point, there’s only so much we can do,” Brewer said. “It’s also up to the driver to drive re­spon­si­bly.”

WHERE TO BE­GIN

In in­ves­ti­gat­ing wrong­way crashes, it can be dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine where a driver en­tered a con­trolled-ac­cess high­way go­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion, es­pe­cially when the driver is killed, Brewer said.

Of­ten, Lann said drivers will call 911 when they see some­one go­ing the wrong way, and those calls help in­ves­ti­ga­tors nar­row down where the driver could have en­tered. In other cases, a driver crosses a me­dian and tire tracks in­di­cate where he drove into on­com­ing traf­fic.

In the crash that killed Carter, how­ever, there are few op­tions for where she en­tered the in­ter­state.

A re­port from the Arkansas State Po­lice says Carter’s 2011 Chevro­let Im­pala struck the am­bu­lance at 5:17 a.m. near the 142 mile marker of I-40 east. It’s pos­si­ble that Carter en­tered I-40 at the Mor­gan-Maumelle en­trance at mile 142.

Carter would have driven more than 5 miles on the wrong side of the in­ter­state if she en­tered at the next-clos­est ramp, which is in North Lit­tle Rock. Un­less her ve­hi­cle was caught on a high­way cam­era en­ter­ing the in­ter­state, in­ves­ti­ga­tors likely will never know for sure what road Carter took that led to her death.

While of­fi­cials say it would be un­usual for some­body to drive that far in the wrong di­rec­tion with­out meet­ing on­com­ing traf­fic, it’s not un­heard of.

In March 2017, a wrong­way driver trav­eled 13 miles in the wrong di­rec­tion in Pu­laski County be­fore a trooper pulled her over and ar­rested her. No one was in­jured in that case.

In Septem­ber 2015, three peo­ple died and four were in­jured af­ter a wrong-way driver trav­eled more than 5 miles go­ing west in the east­bound lanes of In­ter­state 30 and In­ter­state 530.

As Pu­laski County sher­iff’s Deputy An­drew Hol­loway was cross­ing the Arkansas River on Sept. 13, 2015, he saw Joseph DeSalvo trav­el­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion and tried to get DeSalvo’s at­ten­tion with spot­lights and emer­gency lights.

Hol­loway no­ti­fied the state po­lice, but be­fore DeSalvo’s ve­hi­cle reached a row of spike strips laid to dis­able it, the Ford F-150, trav­el­ing about 80 mph, struck a car head-on.

DeSalvo, along with the driver and one pas­sen­ger in the other ve­hi­cle, were killed.

In Carter’s wrong-way crash, the MEMS am­bu­lance weighed be­tween 5,000 and 6,300 pounds, not count­ing the med­i­cal equip­ment in the back. Carter’s Chevro­let Im­pala weighed 3,500 pounds.

The speed limit was 70 mph.

Two medics were in­jured when Carter’s ve­hi­cle struck the am­bu­lance. One was treated at a hos­pi­tal and re­leased later that day. The other re­quired surgery, ac­cord­ing to pre­vi­ous re­ports.

Carter was pro­nounced dead at 5:55 a.m., ac­cord­ing to an Arkansas State Po­lice crash sum­mary.

2 CRASHES THIS YEAR

Carter’s I-40 crash was the sec­ond wrong-way col­li­sion so far this year. Just two days af­ter that Jan. 6 crash, 61-year-old Ronie Fen­ski was trav­el­ing east in U.S. 270’s west­bound lanes when his ve­hi­cle col­lided head-on with an­other ve­hi­cle. Fen­ski was killed.

Over the past 10 years, the num­ber of wrong-way crashes per year has risen as high as 21 and fallen as low as eight, with no clear pat­tern, ac­cord­ing to high­way depart­ment data.

Of the 13 wrong-way crashes cat­a­loged in 2017’s high­way depart­ment in­ter­state and free­way crash study, five re­sulted in deaths. Though the 2018 re­port on fa­tal and non­fa­tal col­li­sions hasn’t been com­pleted, pre­lim­i­nary data from the state po­lice show that there were eight fa­tal wrong-way crashes last year, seven of them on high­ways or in­ter­states.

And the crashes are not dan­ger­ous only for peo­ple in the ve­hi­cles, Lann said.

“There are times that troop­ers have got­ten hurt try­ing to stop these wrong­way ve­hi­cles,” Lann said. “It’s def­i­nitely a threat.”

A wrong-way crash in 2016 left one state trooper, Cpl. Roy Moomey, hos­pi­tal­ized for weeks af­ter Moomey pulled his ve­hi­cle in front of a wrong-way driver, stop­ping that ve­hi­cle in the en­su­ing crash.

Moomey, who suf­fered a bro­ken arm, leg, wrist, mul­ti­ple bro­ken ribs and col­lapsed lungs, was later named Trooper of the Year.

A law passed in 2009 re­quires the Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion to keep track of wrong-way crashes and com­pile a yearly re­port de­tail­ing where and when such crashes oc­cur.

The two com­po­nents that crop up in al­most ev­ery wrong-way crash, Brewer said, are dark­ness and im­pair­ment.

Nine of 2017’s crashes hap­pened af­ter sun­set. The re­port showed that in 2016, when there was a 10-year high of 21 wrong-way crashes, nearly half hap­pened at night, and in 2015, 12 of the 15 wrong-way crashes oc­curred

De­spite more than 6,300 signs, 2,000 pave­ment mark­ers and 800 ramp re­flec­tors added on road­ways in the state over the past two years, at least 10 peo­ple died in wrong-way crashes in 2018, ac­cord­ing to pre­lim­i­nary data from Arkansas State Po­lice crash re­ports.

af­ter dark.

In 2017 and 2016, drivers were im­paired in at least half of all wrong-way crashes. In the 2015 wrong-way crash that killed three peo­ple, DeSalvo’s blood-al­co­hol con­tent was 0.23 per­cent, nearly three times the level at which a driver is con­sid­ered im­paired.

That Carter was driv­ing be­fore sun­rise is cer­tain. Whether she was im­paired has not yet been re­leased.

TIME AND IM­PAIR­MENT

When the High­way Depart­ment be­gan its wrong­way de­ter­rence project, Brewer said traf­fic safety en­gi­neers took into ac­count the times of day and im­pair­ment fac­tors in such crashes.

Wrong-way signs, he said were placed closer to the ground to be in the line of sight of im­paired drivers. Bright red re­flec­tors and re­flec­tive pave­ment ar­rows warn a driver to stop at night.

“When we did that statewide project, we had that in mind,” Brewer said. “Im­paired drivers have tun­nel vi­sion … and these are the kinds of lit­tle things we’re try­ing to do to get their at­ten­tion bet­ter.”

Lann said that while the ma­jor­ity of wrong-way drivers are drug- or al­co­hol-im­paired, he has also worked crashes where the per­son was di­a­betic and had low blood su­gar or had de­men­tia or other men­tal im­pair­ments that caused con­fu­sion.

In De­cem­ber 2015, wrong­way crashes were in­creas­ing. Eight col­li­sions in 2014 grew to 15 in 2015. The next year they rose to 21.

Jessie Jones, di­vi­sion en­gi­neer for Trans­porta­tion Plan­ning and Pol­icy, sent a memo in 2015 to the high­way depart­ment’s deputy di­rec­tor, Emanuel Banks, rec­om­mend­ing a statewide project to de­ter wrong-way drivers.

The project be­gan in Jan­uary 2017, and ended in March 2018, ac­cord­ing to the 2017 crash re­port. Along with more “wrong way” and “do not en­ter” signs — both cov­ered in re­flec­tive sheet­ing to make them vis­i­ble at night — the project in­stalled more stop and yield lanes, ex­tended di­vid­ing lines be­tween en­try and exit lanes, and in­stalled signs point­ing which way traf­fic was flow­ing.

These mea­sures are now con­sid­ered stan­dard for all ramp con­struc­tion, ac­cord­ing to the 2017 re­port.

TEXAS CRASHES HIGH­EST

A 2014 na­tional study of wrong-way drivers pub­lished by the Illi­nois Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion is listed on the Fed­eral High­way Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s web­page as a guide­line for high­way de­part­ments seek­ing to re­duce col­li­sions.

The study ranked states on the fre­quency of wrong-way crashes. More than 14 per­cent of all wrong-way crashes in Amer­ica hap­pened in Texas — the high­est per­cent­age — whereas 1.4 per­cent hap­pened in Arkansas.

Low­er­ing signs was rec­om­mended in the study, as were in­creas­ing red re­flec­tors and in-lane pave­ment ar­rows.

But no mat­ter how many signs, re­flec­tors and ar­rows are in­stalled, Brewer said, drivers still make mis­takes, still drive in­tox­i­cated or be­come ill while driv­ing.

“We rec­og­nize this is also a driver be­hav­ior is­sue,” Brewer said. “It’s re­ally on all of us, but driver re­spon­si­bil­ity is an im­por­tant fac­tor.”

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