Each year, 360 people die in wrong-way crashes on America’s major highways. Nearly 70 percent of fatal wrong-way accidents — and nearly a third of all highway deaths — involve alcohol.
Identifying the problem is easy. Coming up with a solution is difficult.
On Sunday, four people — including a 7-year-old — were killed on I-75 near Cincinnati when two minivans crashed head-on. Police said the vehicle that was going in the wrong direction smelled of alcohol.
This week, a Toledo man was killed on his way home from Midnight Mass by a wrong-way driver on southbound I-75 in north Toledo. It was not known whether alcohol was a factor.
In March, three wrong-way drivers on I-75 caused accidents that killed six local people and injured several others, including children. Alcohol was not involved in all of the crashes, but the incidents captured national attention.
The Ohio Department of Transportation responded by installing wrong-way signs and pavement arrows in strategic locations across the region. Some of the signs are lower to the ground, where it is hoped that impaired as well as elderly drivers — another group disproportionately represented in wrong-way crashes — will be more likely to see them.
A bill that died in this session of the General Assembly would have increased penalties for wrong-way driving on interstate highways, including fatal accidents by drunken drivers. Some lawmakers said the measure was too harsh.
Other suggestions include installing tire-busting one-way barriers at highway off ramps, lighted or blinking wrong-way signs, and sensors that would raise a barrier when someone enters a ramp in the wrong direction.
This month, the National Transportation Safety Board proposed that states require drivers with one or more drunk- or drugged-driving convictions to have breath-test devices installed in their vehicles. Seventeen states, not including Ohio or Michigan, already do that.
The federal agency also urged faster development of breath-based or touch-activated vehicle technology to detect alcohol use by all drivers that could be made standard on vehicles. Researchers estimate that 7,000 lives a year could be saved if every vehicle was equipped with ignition-locking technology.
The safety board’s proposals come a month after a suspected drunken driver on a Tennessee highway caused an accident that killed a woman and injured four passengers — including three children — in her car. In a recent week, 11 people were killed and nine injured in wrong-way driving accidents in eight states.
All of these ideas have been offered before. None by itself solves the problem.
The alcohol industry is sure to oppose the safety-board proposals. An executive of the American Beverage Institute complained that the recommended technology wouldn’t allow people “to have a glass of wine with dinner or to have a beer at a ballgame and then drive home.”
The auto industry may balk as well. Automakers will have to weigh the cost and intrusiveness of the technology against the benefit of saved lives.
A combination of better signs, tougher penalties, and improved technology seems the best way to address the problem of wrong-way drivers. But we won’t know until all the pieces of the puzzle are in place. And that will take the cooperation of elected officials, automakers, and the alcoholic beverage industry.
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