Wrong-Way Accidents: How They Happen and How to Avoid Them

Wrong-Way Accidents: How They Happen and How to Avoid ThemWhen you get behind the wheel of your car, you trust every other motorist to follow the rules of the road and drive safely and responsibly. This trust can be shattered when you are traveling down a one-way road and see headlights coming directly at you. One wrong-way turn can put a disoriented, drunk, or drowsy driver in the path of oncoming vehicles, an action that can have serious or deadly consequences.

According to an analysis by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, “fatal wrong-way driving crashes on our nation’s highways are a persistent and devastating threat that is only getting worse.” They note that 2,008 Americans died from wrong-way car accidents on divided highways between 2015 and 2018 – an average of 500 deaths each year.

Dr. David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation, says, “Wrong-way crashes on divided highways are often fatal as they are typically head-on collisions. And unfortunately, as the data shows, fatalities from these crashes are on the rise.”

What causes wrong-way accidents?

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) discusses wrong-way accidents and fatalities, reporting 428 in 2018, a jump from 415 in 2017. They define wrong-way driving crashes as:

One in which a vehicle traveling in a direction opposing the legal flow of traffic on a high–speed divided highway or access ramp collides with a vehicle traveling on the same roadway in the proper direction…

The AAA study also used FHWA information in their report, which analyzed nationwide data to determine the most common factors contributing to wrong-way accidents and fatalities. Three factors stood out the most:

  • Older drivers. Data analysis showed that, although older people generally drive fewer miles and spend less time on the road than their younger counterparts, they experience more wrong-way accidents. AAA notes specifically that seniors are “over-represented” in wrong-way crashes, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety advises that any older person with vision, hearing, or cognitive impairments should self-limit their driving.
  • Driving without a passenger. Another major factor contributing to wrong-way driving accidents is driving alone in the vehicle. In fact, almost 87 percent of wrong-way drivers were alone at the time of their crash, leading AAA researchers to believe that having a passenger in the vehicle can reduce the risk of an accident. The study states, “Passengers may alert drivers that they are entering a one-way road, preventing them from entering the highway in the wrong direction, or alerting them to their error, helping the driver take corrective action before a crash occurs.”
  • Alcohol or drug impairment. Finally, AAA researchers found that drunk driving was the primary factor in most wrong-way accidents, finding that six out of every 10 wrong-way drivers (60.1%) involved in these accidents had a BAC of 0.08 percent or higher. Said Dr. Rob Molloy of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), “Alcohol impairment is, by far, the single most significant factor in the majority of wrong-way driving crashes, which unfortunately has not changed since the NTSB issued its Wrong-Way Driving special investigation report in 2012.”

Wrong-Way Driving: A Special Investigation

The special investigation Dr. Molloy mentions, even though released in 2012, is similar in nature to AAA’s research and includes more specific causes of wrong-way crashes. For example:

  • The majority of wrong-way accidents occur on weekends.
  • Wrong-way crashes happen more often at night, with 78% occurring between 6:00pm and 6:00am when visibility is lower.
  • Most wrong-way accidents happen in the left-hand lane, closest to the median.
  • Almost 60% of wrong-way drivers who were impaired at the time of their accident had a BAC at or above .15 percent.
  • Although drivers over age 70 made up less than 3% of right-way drivers involved in fatal wrong-way crashes, they made up about 15% of wrong-way drivers in those accidents.

The NTSB also found that the three most common reasons wrong-way accidents occur are when a motorist:

  1. Mistakenly enters an exit ramp.
  2. Makes a U-turn on a main road.
  3. Uses an emergency turnaround to make a U-turn.

It is important to note that, even though they may not happen often, wrong-way crashes are usually head-on collisions and therefore catastrophic or fatal accidents.

Is there a way to prevent wrong-way accidents?

In an effort to cut down on wrong-way crash deaths and injuries, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and UC Davis recently completed a three-year pilot program testing various prevention measures. Some of these measures proved so effective, Caltrans has already implemented them into hundreds of miles of California highways, where UC Davis notes 37 Californians are killed each year in wrong-way accidents.

During the program, they installed and tested the following wrong-way prevention methods along various exit ramps in Sacramento and San Diego:

  • “Two-way reflective pavement markers that show white or yellow to right-way drivers, and red to wrong-way drivers.
  • ‘Wrong Way’ signs in two different spacings.
  • ‘Do Not Enter’ signs equipped with LED lights flashing 24 hours a day.
  • Active monitoring systems that use radar to detect wrong-way drivers. These systems activate a secondary set of LED signs when a wrong-way driver enters the ramp and send real-time alerts and photos to Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol.”

After monitoring these installations over the course of the pilot, Caltrans noticed the reflective pavement markers were particularly effective. In San Diego, wrong-way crashes decreased by a full 44 percent. Caltrans continues to install these pavement markers throughout the state.

Noted Caltrans Director Toks Omishakin, “Adding the two-way reflective markers proved to be so effective that Caltrans updated its statewide design standards. It’s a low-cost measure we can use throughout the state to deter wrong way drivers and potentially save lives on California’s highway system.”

How can I avoid a wrong-way driver?

Wrong-way drivers often appear out of nowhere, but you can avoid a tragic accident if you know what to do if you encounter one. Safety experts across the board, from AAA to the National Transportation Safety Board, offer advice when behind the wheel:

  • As most wrong-way crashes happen in the left lane, stay in the right – especially at night. Wrong-way drivers tend to drive closest to the median, even when impaired or disoriented, because they believe they are in the right (or correct) lane.
  • Whenever driving, especially on long stretches of road, keep a high visual horizon. Ensure you are also looking far enough down the road to anticipate any hazards coming at you, including traffic, wildlife, and wrong-way drivers.
  • Make sure your headlights are on at dusk, nighttime, and during inclement weather. Your vehicle’s oncoming lights can serve as a warning to any confused or wrong-way motorist.
  • In the event you spot a wrong-way driver, move out of the way as quickly and safely as possible. Pull over, put on your hazards, and call 911 to report the driver. The sooner you do so, the more lives you may possibly save.
  • Never drink and drive. Even the smallest buzz can disrupt your reflexes and you may not be able to avoid being involved in an accident.

At McNicholas & McNicholas, LLP, our Los Angeles attorneys want to help if you or a loved one were injured in a car accident. Our years of experience and dedication make us the right choice when you need an advocate to help secure compensation for your medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering. Get in touch by calling us today at 310-474-1582 or completing our contact form to schedule a free, remote consultation.

Please note that this blog is not to be construed as legal advice. Because every case is fact-specific, you should consult directly with an attorney to obtain legal advice specific to your situation.