WASHINGTON — Hundreds of people are killed each year when drivers turn the wrong way into oncoming traffic on high-speed highways, and a majority of the crashes involves drivers with blood-alcohol levels more than twice the legal limit, a federal accident researcher said Tuesday.
The National Transportation Safety Board was meeting to review a staff study of wrong-way collisions and consider recommendations on countermeasures to prevent such accidents. On average, 360 people are killed each year in wrong-way collisions, researchers said. In just the past week, 11 people were killed and 9 seriously injured in accidents in eight states, the board was told.
To address the problem, the board is considering recommending all states require convicted first-time drunken-driving offenders use ignition interlock devices that test their breath for alcohol concentration to drive. The devices, mounted on the vehicle’s dashboard, prevent the engine from starting if the driver’s alcohol concentration is too high. Seventeen states already have such a requirement.
The board’s study analyzed data from 1,566 crashes from 2004 to 2009 and nine wrong way collisions NTSB directly investigated. In 59 percent of the accidents, wrong-way drivers had blood alcohol levels more than twice the legal limit, researchers said. In another 10 percent of the crashes, drivers had alcohol levels between .08 and .14. The limit in most instances is .08.
Older drivers also appear to be part of the problem, researchers said. Drivers over age 70 were overrepresented in the accidents, accounting for 15 percent of the wrong-way drivers compared with only 3 percent of the right-way drivers they collided with, researchers said.
Wrong-driving crashes on interstates, expressways and other high-speed highways are especially deadly because more than 80 percent involve head-on collisions in which vehicles close in on each other very rapidly, they said. A 2012 study in Michigan found that 22 percent of wrong-way collisions were fatal, compared with .3 percent for all highway accidents over the same period.
“Wrong-way crashes shatter lives and families,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said.
Often the chain of events begins with drivers entering an exit ramp in the wrong direction, making a U-turn on the mainline of a highway or using an emergency turnaround through a median, investigators said.
Most wrong-way crashes – including seven of the nine accidents investigated by NTSB – take place in the fast lane of the highway, investigators said.
Reducing drunk driving is perhaps the most obvious way to reduce wrong-driving fatalities and injuries. The board held a forum earlier this year on the problem of drivers impaired by alcohol and drugs.
Alcohol-impaired crashes overall accounted for nearly 31 percent of the country’s 32,000 motor vehicle fatalities in 2010. That percentage has remained stuck between 30 percent and 32 percent of overall highway fatalities since 1995, board members said.
Safety advocates have been lobbying states to pass more laws requiring ignition interlock devices for first-time offenders. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, states that already have such laws on the books are: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and Washington. Missouri’s law takes effect next fall. Also, four California counties – including Los Angeles – have ignition interlock laws.