Drivers Going The Wrong Way

A recent collision on Business 80 in Sacramento was only the latest in a rash of California highway wrong-way driver crashes — some of them deadly — that have occurred in recent months. Fortunately, this incident only resulted in “moderate” injuries to the wrong-way driver himself. The driver of the big rig that he hit was not injured. Unfortunately, this was not the case in a wrong-way crash in Long Beach that killed one driver and critically injured two other people.  Nor was it the case in a May collision on Interstate 80 in Sacramento that killed three people, a May crash on Highway 50 in Sacramento that killed four, or a January collision on Interstate 80 in Sacramento that killed three people.

A common factor in many wrong-way crashes is alcohol use.  The drivers in these incidents are frequently confused by highway on-ramps and off-ramps, entering against traffic on the off-ramps.  They are then frequently found to be driving against traffic in the left-hand fast lanes, thinking instead that they are “safely” driving in the correct direction in the right-hand slow lanes.  These accidents are most common at night, and the sudden appearance of the wrong-way driver in front of the right-way drivers — with combined closing speeds well over 100 mph — leaves other drivers with very, very little time to react.  The high combined closing speed also adds to the severity of the impacts that result.

Studies have also found that a large percentage of wrong-way highway collisions occur from intentional, illegal U-turns, and that the peak time of day for wrong-way collisions in California is between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. — not coincidentally, the hour immediately after bars are required to close.

Past recommendations for preventing wrong-way crashes have generally focused on signage and other visual signals to warn drivers who are incorrectly entering highways at off-ramps.  New solutions under study also include automated vehicle warning systems.

The string of crashes has resulted in recent legislation being passed and signed into law that calls for an urgent study of these wrong-way crashes by Caltrans, with a preliminary report due later this year.