Deadly wrong-way driving: How to avoid it

wrong way driving Deborah Bruce Out of the many types of potential car crashes, wrong-way driving crashes are among the deadliest, often resulting in head-on collisions. Though wrong-way driving crashes make up only 3 percent of high-speed road accidents according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), they result in more deaths and serious injuries than other kinds of crashes.

According to the NTSB, one person will die every day in a wrong-way driving crash. Texas, California and Georgia are the three states with the highest number of deaths resulting from wrong-way crashes.

Deborah Bruce is project manager with the NTSB’s Office of Highway Safety in Washington, D.C. She was lead author of a special investigative report on wrong-way driving the NTSB released in 2012. We asked her about the conditions under which these crashes occur, who's most likely to crash, how to avoid these accidents and more.

How to avoid wrong-way driving

Under what circumstances do wrong-way accidents occur?

The majority happen when it's dark -- between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. -- and on weekends. Going the wrong direction on an exit ramp is most common.

When someone's driving in the wrong lane on a high-speed highway or freeway, they're more likely driving in the passing, or inside, lane.

In our investigation of over 1,500 crashes over six years, we found that drinking alcohol to excess (is common) with these crashes.

Who's most likely to be driving the wrong way?

We compared wrong-way drivers with "right-way" drivers in fatal crashes. We found that most wrong-way drivers were between the ages of 20 and 50.

What are common causes of wrong-way driving?

We found that … between half and possibly as many as three-quarters of drivers were impaired by alcohol.

With drivers over age 70, it's likely that cognitive impairment is the main cause. But we weren't able to tease out whether that's due primarily to medications they're taking or some other type of mental condition. Few older drivers involved in a wrong-way driving incident were drinking alcohol.

How can wrong-way driving be avoided?

There will always be human error. But we're hopeful that technology can help. Mandatory alcohol ignition interlocks for (driving while intoxicated) offenders can help curb accidents caused by drunken drivers. The Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety -- DADSS -- is a program to get alcohol-detection systems that are fast, accurate and don't penalize drivers who haven't been drinking, in all vehicles.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) estimates that 7,000 lives could be saved each year if all vehicles had an alcohol-detection system. Since the majority of wrong-way crashes involve alcohol, it would save some lives.  

If you're on an interstate and you see someone driving the wrong way, what should you do?

They're most likely to be driving the wrong way in the passing lane. The best thing you can do is pull off to the side of the road on the right and make sure you're well out of their way. I witnessed it on a freeway. It's very sobering. But there's really not much you can do except stay clear.

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