There’s been a nationwide and statewide increase in fatal wrong-way crashes, “a persistent and devastating threat” that is only getting worse, according to crash data released this week.
There were more than 2,000 deaths nationally from wrong-way driving crashes on divided highways between 2015 and 2018, an average of approximately 500 deaths a year, an analysis of AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety (AAAFTS) data shows. That’s a 34% increase from the 375 deaths annually from 2010 to 2014.
Ohio is no exception, with 595 wrong-way crashes occurring on the state’s divided highways between 2011 and 2020, according to Ohio Department of Transportation data.
The state had 65 wrong-way crash fatalities between 2010 and 2014, with an average of 13 fatalities a year, according to AAAFTS data. It had 57 wrong-way-crash fatalities between 2015 and 2018 with an average of 14.3 fatalities a year, a 9.6% increase.
“Most of the time we have wrong crashes because people get on a ramp and go the wrong way or they do a U-Turn and get confused and go the wrong way,” said Pat Brown, driving school supervisor at AAA Allied Group.
Montgomery County ranked in the top 5 in Ohio with high incidents of wrong-way crashes in 2019, after reporting 20 wrong-way crashes that led to 9 fatalities and 21 serious injuries.
Of Ohio’s 88 counties, Hamilton (No. 3), Clark (No. 12), Greene (No. 16), Warren (No. 20) and Butler (No. 22) were listed in the Top 25 for the number of wrong-way crashes in 2019, according to ODOT data.
Local families have been impacted by fatal, wrong-way crashes.
On March 17, 2019, a 21-year-old Xenia woman was driving the wrong way on Interstate 75 while intoxicated. That led to a crash that killed three members of a Warren County family.
Those killed: Timmy, 51, and Karen Thompson, 50, and Tessa Thompson, a 10-year-old fourth-grader at St. Susanna Parish School.
In February 2020, a Middletown grandmother, mother and her son were killed in a wrong-way crash on Interstate 75 in Moraine.
Betty Davis, 57, Amanda Kidwell, 36, and Brayden Jennings, 6, all from Middletown, were identified as the victims by the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office. Brayden was a student at Wildwood Elementary School.
The crash happened just before 10 p.m. when a semi-truck going northbound traveled into the southbound lanes and struck the other vehicle head-on by mile post 48, according to Moraine police.
“Wrong-way crashes on divided highways are often fatal as they are typically head-on collisions,” David Yang, AAFTS executive director, said in a release. “And unfortunately, as the data shows, fatalities from these crashes are on the rise.”
To help reduce or eliminate wrong-way incidents, motorists need to be alert, especially at night when it’s more difficult to see, Brown said. Having a passenger to help navigate, especially in an unfamiliar area, is also helpful in not having a driver get confused or lost while trying to determine the correct way to proceed, he said.
“It’s an unfortunate thing that happens and it’s on the rise and we need to try to get a better handle on it because most of those crashes that happen on those wrong-way (areas), especially on the highways, are usually fatal crashes,” Brown said. “These things should be going down and not going up.”
Researchers found that the odds of being a wrong-way driver increased with alcohol-impairment, older age, and driving without a passenger, he said. AAAFTS research found that six in 10 wrong-way crashes involved an alcohol-impaired driver.
Distracted driving also is a contributing factor, preventing drivers from seeing a “wrong way” sign, Brown said.
“What we tell the (driving school) students is ‘You’ve got to be aware. You’ve got to know what’s going on,’” he said. “If they’re going down a ramp and there’s silver on the back of the sign, that means you’re going the wrong way because we don’t have silver signs. They all have color or wording on it.”
ODOT has worked to reduce the risk of wrong-way crashes by placing wrong-way signs lower on the poles, because research has shown that impaired drivers tend to look down instead of up. It has also painted directional arrows on ramp pavement and installed raised pavement markers to reflect back red when a motorist is driving in the wrong direction.
In 2019, ODOT installed the first wrong-way detection system along a 19-mile stretch of Interstate 71 in Hamilton County. It also has detectors on two ramps: I-670 westbound to Neil Avenue in Columbus and westbound Ohio 2 to West 28th Street in Cleveland, with those devices effectively stopping wrong-way drivers.
“The wrong-way corridor in Hamilton County has been successful so far in that I’m not aware of any wrong way crashes on that corridor since we launched the system in July 2019,” said ODOT spokesman Matt Bruning. “The issue for us is not so much what to do, it’s where to do it. We have 5,209 ramps on the ODOT system in Ohio and these types of crashes are extremely rare. However, when they happen, they tend to be severe or deadly and they make the news, so people are aware of them.”
That’s why ODOT is taking the aforementioned measures to alert drivers — many of whom are severely impaired — that they’re going the wrong way, Bruning said.
Those who spot a wrong-way driver should dial #677 to alert the Ohio State Highway Patrol, according to OSHP spokeswoman and Trooper Jessica McIntyre.