Interstate Highway Safety: Part I - Ghost drivers continue to be a problem on U.S. Interstate Highways

Whenever a potential client calls with a wrong-way turn collision I ask myself a question. Was it booze or drugs, old age, sign pollution, improper sign wording, a language issue, a lighting issue, being in a hurry, being distracted or just inattentiveness that causes someone to turn the wrong way? I’m not talking about falling asleep or a sudden medical condition or any of the causes that makes someone simply cross the center line on an undivided highway. I’m talking about a divided highway where a person turns left rather than continue across the median strip before turning.

More often than I like to recall there is another accident where two or more cars collide with one driving the wrong way on the Interstate. Our highways here in Iowa are I- 80, I-235 and I-35. In the recent past there have been wrong-way collisions in Richmond, California, Salem, Oregon and Iowa on I-80.

Like running a stop sign this issue has come up a few times in my practice and it has always puzzled me. You would think no one would purposefully turn and drive the wrong way against traffic, but a few do to avoid long traffic lines. There is nothing we can do about the drunks and those who purposefully ignore how risky a practice it is. But what about the others? Lawyers are citizens first and if there is something about the rules of the road that can be changed to avoid accidents we would like to act. That’s really why most of us attended law school; to make the world a better place.

A Persistent Problem

Driving the wrong way on freeways has been a nagging traffic safety problem since the interstate highway system was founded in the late 1950s. Despite four decades of highway striping and sign improvements at freeway interchanges, the problem persists.

Studies, such as those performed by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), show the vast majority of wrong-way drivers correct their mistakes before causing a crash by simply turning around and heading in the right direction. But for unknown reasons some drivers, even when sober, head straight into oncoming traffic with devastating consequences.

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, according to Eckhart's analysis. Thousands more are injured. In the four-county area where Klotz was killed King, Snohomish, Skagit, and Whatcom counties—136 wrong-way crashes between 1997 and 2000 resulted in 81 injuries and nine fatalities.

"While there are safety programs exclusively for rail crossings and work zones," says Eckhart, "I am not aware of any national-level program to combat the wrong-way problem. However, at the State level, some States such as California do have a wrong-way prevention program that funds safety improvements." State departments of transportation (DOT) across the country have taken additional measures to improve ramp designs, signage, and striping to prevent wrong-way incidents. Other States are experimenting with intelligent transportation system (ITS) technology to address the problem.”

            U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Sept/Oct. 2002

Wrong-Way Fatalities bar chart (vertical # of fatalities 100 -400, horizontal year 1966-2000): Almost 400 in 1996, 350 in 1997, just over 300 in 1998, 350 in 1999, slightly less than 350 in 2000. Source: Fatal Accident Reporting System, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration | Source: Fatal Accident Reporting System, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

If the issue is intoxication or simply a refusal to follow the rules-of-the-road then there is little we can do but to punish and punish severely. This is a judge’s sentencing discretionary function; something we should bring back from earlier years. If it’s the sign and the words used then it should be somewhat obvious from what the drivers tell us. And in that instance the DOT needs to correct the problem. If it’s sign pollution, with too many signs causing driver confusion, then the DOT and municipalities need to act by restricting signs. If the issue is the soccer Mom syndrome with rushing around to too many places while talking on the cell phone while the kids watch a movie on the DVD player, then it’s the driver’s fault for doing too many things and being distracted. Same goes for the teenager who is too busy texting to pay attention to the traffic conditions. Old age is just a natural condition of living long enough that human capital wears out. That’s a licensing issue for the DOT.

One possible solution to the ghost drivers…

Germany came up with an interesting solution used on the autobahn. They call the ghost drivers who trigger a radio announcement that interrupts your radio to warn you.

“Perhaps the best solution would be to follow Germany’s model:  Wrong-way drivers on the autobahn ("ghost drivers") trigger a radio announcement that interrupts whatever you’re listening to, warning you of the situation and that car’s approximate location. That way, you can pull off onto the shoulder and keep a close eye out for someone coming from the opposite direction at well over 100 mph on your side of the road.”

Geister Fahrer - Translates from German into "Ghost Driver;" a driver who drives on the wrong direction on an autobahn, often with headlights turned off at night. Usually a drunk driver but can also be a thrill seeker, suicide attempt, or horrendous driver error.


That’s an interesting idea but I wonder how the use of iPods and CD players has affected the success rate of the German solution? Perhaps motion detectors that flash warning lights towards the offending driver would signal their mistake and warn those coming head on. The U.S. military along with law enforcement must have some type of motion detector that could be modified and transformed into a wrong-way surveillance device.

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