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A fiery crash on Interstate 215 in Salt Lake County last week claimed the life of one driver and seriously injured the second. An elderly gentleman drove his Toyota Camry the wrong way on the belt route around Salt Lake City until he collided with a tractor-trailer head on. The fuel tanks on the truck burst into flames causing a brush fire that approached several homes. The elderly gentleman was pronounced dead at the scene, but passers-by were able to lead the truck driver to safety before his cab was engulfed in flames.

After reading about that accident and another later the same day on Interstate 15 in which a wrong-way driver struck a Utah Highway Patrol patrol car that was positioned to stop her, I decided to see how big of a problem wrong-way driving is for the motoring public. One report offers these statistics;

On average about 350 people are killed each year nationwide in wrong-way freeway crashes, according to an analysis by retired FHWA traffic engineer Dennis Eckhart using the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatal Accident Reporting System. The 350 figure covers those killed on divided highways, including driving the wrong way on one-way traffic ways such as freeway ramps. From 1996 through 2000, 1,753 people died in wrong-way crashes on the Nation’s freeways.

It is easy to assume that the vast majority of these accidents are caused by drivers impaired with alcohol or drugs, but there are many that involve sober drivers and researchers aren’t sure why. In any event, there is great interest in focusing on wrong-way accident reductions because they tend to be severe, high speed accidents.

Reduction efforts come in several forms. Improved signage, ramp designs, and striping have been implemented in many areas that pose risks for such accidents. In addition, some states are experimenting with intelligent transportation technology (ITS) systems. Such systems often include video systems that track incidences to determine problem prone areas and can include features that notify highway patrol dispatch centers and the like of problems as they are developing.

Other systems use sensors embedded in the pavement to determine when a vehicle heads the wrong way. If the sensors detect a wrong way vehicle, flashing alert signs are activated for several minutes and data is collected to identify problem prone areas for future attention. In addition, some highway managers have experimented with high-intensity reflective sheeting for signs and thermoplastic tape and cold-applied-tape for wrong-way arrows, which are more visible to drivers, including those who may be disoriented or confused. No matter what methods are being attempted, when one see the aftermath of a wrong way accident like the Camry meets tractor-trailer accident last week on Interstate 215, all efforts are appreciated.

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