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Published: Tuesday, 1/1/2008

Wrong-way freeway crashes rare but deadly

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Wrong-way collisions are relatively rare on freeways, but when they occur they are unusually deadly and more likely than not involve an impaired driver, according to a Texas Transportation Institute analysis performed several years ago.

But exactly how many such crashes - and wrong-way incidents in general - occur on Ohio roadways is difficult to assess because no specific records are kept.

"Our crash reports are not coded for wrong-way drivers," Sgt. Carlos Smith, a spokesman at Ohio Highway Patrol headquarters in Columbus said yesterday. "That would be considered a left-of-center violation," he continued, but in that case, reports would then have to be sorted by roadway type, and too few such crashes occur on divided highways to justify tracking that data.

An Ohio Department of Transportation official, meanwhile, said a recent ODOT analysis of wrong-way hazard areas found no recurring trouble spots in the Toledo area.

While some states have deployed vehicle-activated warning systems in areas with wrong-way driving histories, Ohio so far has relied upon extra signs, reflectors, and pavement markings to ward off wayward drivers.

Summarizing previous studies, the 2003 Texas Transportation Institute report said historically, exit ramps have been the most common access points for wrong-way drivers, who are statistically likely to be male - "significantly more" - and intoxicated (50 to 75 percent).

"Crashes tend to be more severe and have a greater proportion resulting in death or serious injury than most other crash types on freeway facilities," the report said.

Wrong-way crashes usually occur at night, although that was not the case with two recent fatal wrong-way crashes on the Ohio Turnpike.

On Oct. 8, a Spring Hill, Fla., woman was killed and her toddler son injured when she headed west on the eastbound side from the State Rt. 49 interchange in western Williams County and collided with an eastbound tractor-trailer near the Indiana border.

And on March 2, 2006, a woman from Bellevue, Ohio, died when a sport utility vehicle going the wrong way hit the car in which she was riding head-on in the westbound lanes near the Middle Ridge service plaza in Lorain County.

Fatal wrong-way crashes during 2005 on I-75 in Toledo and State Rt. 795 in Perrysburg Township that killed the wrong-way drivers both occurred during the wee hours. In both of those cases, the wrong-way drivers crashed head-on with tractor-trailers.

Two other nonfatal wrong-way crashes on I-75, one on Nov. 3, 2005, at the northbound Anthony Wayne Trail exit and the other on Dec. 3, 2004, near Lagrange Street, occurred between 2 and 3:30 a.m.

None of the initial reports for those crashes cited alcohol as a factor, but a Youngstown woman who collided with oncoming traffic on I-75 near Bowling Green during the early hours of Aug. 8, 2006, was cited for operating under the influence. Alcohol also was cited in an Oct. 5, 2005, crash in which an Oregon man went south on northbound I-75's South Erie Street exit ramp shortly before midnight and struck and seriously injured a motorcyclist.

The Texas institute's researchers reviewed Texas crash reports from 1997 through 2000 and found that about half of wrong-way crashes on that state's freeways caused deaths or incapacitating injuries, "significantly higher" than the statewide average for all traffic accidents.

The researchers found that accident investigators cited alcohol or drug influence in 61 percent of the Texas crashes, and that the most dangerous time was the hour after last call in bars.

Males accounted for slightly more than two-thirds of wrong-way drivers, and almost half of all wrong-way drivers were younger than 34.

But the transportation institute found that, beyond breaking down crash reports, little information was available on the overall frequency of motorists driving the wrong way on freeways.

And those agencies that did keep track of wrong-way reports found that, in most cases, police patrols dispatched to respond to them rarely encountered the wrong-way driver - probably because, in most cases, the driver realized his or her error and turned around, the institute said.

Michael Stormer, the district planning engineer at the Ohio Department of Transportation's Bowling Green office, said a state analysis performed several years ago identified several freeway exits in Columbus that had high frequencies of wrong-way traffic, but none in the Toledo area.

"In northwest Ohio, we don't have a particular problem area where people are doing this time and time again," Mr. Stormer said.

Ohio's standard markings for freeway ramps involve Do Not Enter and Wrong Way signs in concert with red reflectors on the "wrong" sides of raised pavement markers.

ODOT has installed additional signs at the high-risk Columbus locations, Mr. Stormer said, and at all locations when lane stripes are repainted, large arrows are added in the middle of ramp lanes to indicate the proper direction of travel.

At least four states are using or experimenting with active wrong-way warning systems in which errant vehicles trigger flashing lights or illuminate a sign to alert the wayward driver.

In Florida, detection loops on a problem bridge activate lights that warn traffic headed in the proper direction about possible oncoming traffic too.

A more common tactic, used by numerous states especially in the South and West, is to post Do Not Enter and Wrong Way signs on shorter poles near exit ramp outlets.

The theory behind this practice is that a lower sign will be caught by vehicles' headlights, considering that most wrong-way incidents occur at night. The Texas Transportation Institute report said exit-ramp monitoring in California revealed a sharp decline in wrong-way freeway entries after such signs were posted there during the early 1970s, but no crash tests were performed to determine if the signs themselves became safety hazards.

Some southwestern and western states also post green Freeway Entrance signs, with arrows pointing toward the pavement, at freeway entrance ramps as a form of positive reinforcement directing motorists to the proper ramps.

But such signs are uncommon, if they are used at all, in the eastern United States.

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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