The interstate beltway around Raleigh, North Carolina (NC), just served as the site of one of the most-recent deadly head-on collisions in the Tar Heel State. A little before 3 am on November 4, 2017, a Mazda driver headed east in the westbound lanes of I-540 near the Creedmore Road/NC-50 interchange slammed into a Kia.
Both drivers died. The innocent woman who lost her life had been headed to Raleigh-Durham International Airport for her shift as a Transportation Security Administration supervisor. State Highway Patrol troopers did not know why the wrong-way driver was on the road or how he wound up on the wrong side of the interstate.
During the past 40 days, my Carolina personal injury and wrongful death colleagues have called attention to separate wrong-way collisions outside of Asheville, in the town of Garner and in Haywood County. This frequency is not remarkable. In reporting on the I-540 head-on collision, WRAL.com cited North Carolina Department of Transportation records that show “more than 500 wrong-way crashes between 2000 and 2016, with 145 people killed and another 643 injured,” That averages out to nearly three wrong-way crashes each month.
Decades of analyses on wrong-way crash reports indicate that the majority of such wrecks involve at least one driver who is under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The large majority of wrong-way crash occur between midnight and 6 am, and victims often die. On its wrong-way crash research resources webpage, the Federal Highway Administration notes,
In the United States, WWD [wrong-way driving] crashes result in 300 to 400 people killed each year on average, representing approximately 1 percent of the total number of traffic related fatalities that occur annually. While this is a small percentage overall, because WWD crashes involve head-on or opposite direction sideswipe crashes at high speeds, they tend to be relatively more severe than other types of crashes.
For its article, WRAL spoke with an NCDOT official who acknowledged that his agency has become increasingly concerned with the number and severity of wrong-way crashes. Current projects to prevent wrong-way driving include putting up larger signs at the entrances to one-way streets and the openings of exits ramps, as well as adding reflective strips to stop bars and other pavement markings.
A more-advanced solution NCDOT is thinking of adapting from Arizona involves using a system of thermal imaging cameras and flashing warning lights to alert drivers after they have started heading into the path of oncoming traffic. In addition to concerns over expense, upgrading wrong-way driving controls throughout North Carolina is moving slowly because traffic engineers and safety officers do not always know where dangers exist. “We have to wait a while,” the agency spokesman said, “because, if it is a ramp that no one ever goes the wrong-way, is it successful, or did [the driver] never have the opportunity to turn around?”
As it moves forward with projects to protect drivers and passengers from wrong-way crashes, NCDOT might want to consider looking at work done in Michigan. As described in a May/June 2012 Public Roads magazine article, that state undertook a seven-part program to improve warnings by
- Lowering the bottom edge of DO NOT ENTER and WRONG WAY signs to 4 feet so drivers could see the signs more easily,
- Covering the signs with reflective sheeting to make them more visible when hit with headlights,
- Painting stop bars at the ends of all exit ramps,
- Painting one-way arrows on the pavement of exit ramps,
- Painting concrete dividers between exit ramps and entrance ramps to make each stand out, and
- Placing red reflectors along the exit ramps to indicate to a driver that he or she is moving against traffic and needs to stop and turn around.