Wrong-way crashes a high-impact problem

They’re unpredictable and rare, but deadly — and finding ways to prevent them remains a challenge.

01/01/2013 7:06 AM

01/01/2013 7:07 AM

It was 8:45 a.m. on a Thursday and Interstate 635 was full of commuters going to work — and one man going the wrong way.

It is unclear how long he had been traveling south in the northbound lanes before he hit someone just north of Kansas Avenue.

“I never saw the guy coming until it actually happened,” said Jamie McConnell of Overland Park, who was one lane over and lived. “Then all of a sudden it was right in front of me. It was a huge crash.”

Forty-five-year-old Chris Keck of Gardner swerved to avoid a head-on collision, but the wrong-way driver plowed into the front driver’s side of his vehicle.

“He was killed in an instant,” said Nicole Keck of the March 22 incident. “I lost my husband, and I have five children. We lost our provider and a father.”

Wrong-way crashes are relatively infrequent compared with other kinds of accidents, but Kansas and Missouri have had a slew of them lately. And wrong-way crashes are more likely to be fatal. The combined impact of two vehicles at highway speeds — 130 to 140 mph — is always horrific.

Wrong-way crashes usually occur at night or early morning, and they usually involve someone who is impaired by alcohol or drugs or is otherwise confused. The challenge is how to grab the attention of these people before they get too far up the exit ramp of the highway.

State transportation departments across the country have wrestled with the issue, trying everything from pavement sensors to stop sticks. The results, so far, have been inconclusive or expensive.

On the afternoon of Dec. 23, an 81-year-old Kansas City woman was killed when she went the wrong way on a Broadway exit ramp downtown and ran head-on into another vehicle traveling north on Interstate 35.

In the accident that killed Chris Keck, the 55-year-old Kansas City, Kan., man who was driving the wrong way survived. Nicole Keck is frustrated that nine months later there still has been no determination of whether he will face criminal charges. Wyandotte County District Attorney Jerome Gordon said Friday his office had not yet received the accident file it needs to make that decision from the Kansas Highway Patrol.

“I think we’re all just now coming out of the fog,” Keck said of her family’s reaction to the sudden death. “It’s been really difficult, but I have a really good church and really good friends.”

A study in December by the National Transportation Safety Board said an average of 360 people a year are killed in wrong-way freeway crashes, which have been a problem since the interstate system was begun in the 1950s.

“Wrong-way crashes shatter lives and families,” said NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman.

At least 15 people have been killed in wrong-way highway crashes in Missouri and Kansas this year. One woman lost her unborn baby.

The Missouri Department of Transportation reported 66 fatal wrong-way crashes in the state from 2005 to 2011.

The Kansas Department of Transportation does not break out wrong-way crashes in its tally of highway fatalities, but the state has had at least four on divided highways so far this year. Overall, Kansas has far fewer highway fatalities than more populous Missouri.

Because the majority of wrong-way crashes are caused by drunken drivers, the NTSB in December recommended that all states require first-offenders to have ignition interlocks in their vehicles. The devices will not allow the car to start unless the driver blows into a machine to make sure he or she is not intoxicated.

Kansas has such a law. In Missouri, courts may order an interlock for first offenders. It will be required beginning in October.

But transportation officials in both states say they have not developed any specific engineering responses to prevent wrong-way crashes other than the standard “Wrong way” and “Do not enter” signs at highway exit ramps to deter people from driving onto them. They don’t always work.

“If people are not going to pay attention to signage, there is not much you can do,” said Master Trooper Howard Dickinson of the Kansas Highway Patrol.

Studies show that interchange design can make a difference, however. Full cloverleaf interchanges are thought to be the safest because it is harder to enter the wrong ramp. The design most prone to people entering the exit ramps is one in which the on- and off-ramps are adjacent to one another. Michigan has identified 161 such interchanges and plans to install countermeasures at a cost of $2 million over five years.

Officials said neither Kansas nor Missouri is aware of any interchanges that consistently have problems with people entering the off-ramp.

“If we were to find (such) a location we would definitely look at other alternatives,” said Laurel McKean, traffic manager for the Kansas City district of the Missouri Department of Transportation. “If the public has a concern about a certain location, we always look to see if we can enhance (the engineering) there.”

MoDOT this year tasked traffic managers in each district to analyze every fatal accident on state or federal routes to see if there are engineering solutions that could prevent further accidents at those locations.

Missouri has seen total highway fatalities drop 35 percent since 2005 to a level not seen since 1949. MoDOT has a goal of 700 or fewer fatalities by 2016. A “Save Mo Lives” blueprint includes a focus on head-on crashes, which encompasses median crossovers as well as wrong-way accidents.

Brian Gower, the state traffic engineer for the Kansas Department of Transportation, said that most off-ramps in the state have at least two sets of “Do not enter” signs, one at the end of the ramp and one about halfway up. The signs are on both sides of the road to catch the attention of passengers as well as drivers, he said.

A study in Michigan concluded that the more warnings and alerts along the entire length of an exit ramp, the more crashes could be reduced.

In addition, Gower said there are also yellow pavement stripes on the driver’s side of the ramps and white stripes on the passenger side to give further clues. But he acknowledged that detail might be lost on impaired drivers.

“To my knowledge Kansas really hasn’t experimented with much on the wrong-way issue,” said Gower. “If we find a location that has a number of wrong-way crashes we would probably look to additional treatments such as markings and signing. If it’s a random event, we’re probably not.”

Identifying problem interchanges is complicated by the fact that it is often not clear where wrong-way drivers entered the highway. Many of them die and can’t tell investigators. Those who live but were drunk or otherwise impaired may not know.

Other states have tried a variety of approaches to attack the problem.

Ohio transportation officials last year upgraded signs and markings, including painting wrong-way arrows on the pavement, at a dozen freeway exit ramps in and around Toledo after a spate of wrong-way crashes. They planned to make “Do not enter” signs larger, more reflective and more prominent.

They also planned to lower the height of the signs to three feet, in the path of vehicle headlights. Research indicates that older drivers tend to drive with their eyes low and impaired drivers often use pavement stripes to navigate so they are more likely to notice signs that are close to the ground.

California experimented decades ago with placing tire-puncturing spikes at exit ramps, like the kind police use to stop fleeing suspects. But officials found the spikes did not deflate tires fast enough to prevent the driver from entering the highway. They also tended over time to damage the wheels of cars going in the right direction. In addition, emergency vehicles sometimes need to use exit ramps to get to an accident.

In the mid-1970s California also tried red airport runway-type pavement lights to warn wrong-way drivers in the San Diego area. But the system was costly to install and required constant maintenance, so the plan was dropped.

Washington state received a federal grant about a decade ago to experiment with electromagnetic sensors that triggered flashing lights at wrong-way drivers. More recently the state has installed permanent LED lights on the wrong-way signs at some of its exit ramps. It is unclear how effective those tactics have been.

Steve Lombardi, an Iowa lawyer who has studied wrong-way crashes for years and who represents their victims, is not sure there is an effective engineering way to catch a wrong-way driver before he or she goes up an exit ramp. He notes that drivers going the right way will often honk and flash their lights at wrong-way drivers but that they often just wave back.

“They’re completely oblivious to what they’re doing,” he said of those drivers. “I’m not sure there’s any way to get their attention.”

Until they run into another car.

In the meantime, the lawyer has some advice that he says he always follows on the highway: avoid the left lane, especially if approaching a hill. The NTSB confirms that most wrong-way drivers are in the lane closest to the median, which to them is the right one.

“You won’t see the wrong-way driver,” Lombardi said, “and that’s when you’re going to get nailed.”

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