Wrong-way crashes have spiked in North Carolina. Fixes may be on the way

Takaaki Iwabu/tiwabu@newsobserver.com

It’s the most terrifying sight on a highway: a vehicle coming at you traveling the wrong way.

Wrong-way crashes are rare, but it hasn’t seemed that way this month: On Nov. 5, a wrong-way driver died on I-540 in Raleigh; Nov. 8, four died on I-85 in Kannapolis; on Nov. 13, four died on the U.S. 70 Bypass in Wayne County; on Nov. 15, two died on I-440 in Raleigh; on Nov. 20, one died on I-40 in Alamance County.

According to a 2021 NCDOT report, wrong-way crashes made up only 0.2% of all freeway collisions, but they accounted for 5.6% of fatalities across the state. A 2018 report on such crashes by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center found that, “These crashes typically result in serious injuries or fatalities, with associated costs to society ranging from $564,000 to $10 million per crash.”

Given today’s automobile navigation and safety technology, advances in highway design and a general decline in drunken driving arrests and fatalities, it’s confounding that such crashes are not only still occurring, but are increasing.

On North Carolina freeways in 2017, there were 49 wrong-way crashes resulting 19 fatalities and 59 injuries. Last year, there were 66 such crashes with 18 fatalities and 76 injuries. Deaths from wrong-way crashes average about 12 annually. So far in November alone, there have been at least 12.

Indeed, the number of crashes doesn’t tell the whole story. Not all wrong-way driving ends in collisions. Incidences of cars entering a highway on an exit ramp happen more often than you might think.

The North Carolina Turnpike Authority (NCTA) studied the Monroe Expressway near Charlotte, the state’s newest all-electronic toll road, to test wrong-way driver detection and notification systems. The study found a surprisingly high instance of drivers entering an exit ramp before quickly correcting their error.

“A lot of vehicles would go the wrong way up the ramp and turn around,” said Brian Mayhew, a NCDOT traffic engineer. “That’s not data that historically we have had available to us.”

On Nov. 7, the NCDOT invited contractors to submit information about possible components of a wrong-way driver detection and prevention system. The deadline for submissions is Jan. 13, 2023.

The common explanation for wrong-way crashes is people driving while impaired. Alcohol is involved in about half of the incidents, but that also means about half do not involve alcohol.

Causes elusive

The cause of these crashes is not well understood. Alcohol and older drivers are factors, but so are highway design, lighting and signage. These situations are different from most crashes because they tend to occur when traffic is lightest and the driver is alone. It’s not always possible to track how the driver got going the wrong way.

Even when a wrong way-driver is detected, usually by other motorists making 911 calls, it still takes time for police to reach and stop the vehicle. Sometimes they are too late.

Once NCDOT is done collecting data on wrong-way crashes, Mayhew said the department will look at monitoring technology and perhaps adjusting road designs. “The more we understand about the problem, the more we will be able to understand what types of technology are best,” he said.

Finding a way to prevent a dangerous highway situation that arises from multiple causes will likely involve costly changes. “It’s something we know is going to be expensive,” Mayhew said. “So we want to be strategic about it.”

Highway changes are years away, but advances in automobile technology may be closer. Self-driving technology is evolving quickly. Many new cars are designed to stop before contact even if a driver is distracted. GPS monitoring could flag wrong-way drivers to police. Smart highways could correct a driver’s worst error.

To reduce and ultimately end the terror of wrong-way drivers, the future of automobiles and highways needs to arrive fast.