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Wrong-Way Driving Causes Deadliest Highway Crashes

A crash on I-77 in West Virginia last March that took the lives of two women and two young girls was an apparent example of the most dangerous accident scenario of all: wrong-way highway driving under the influence. These circumstances are rare, but when they occur, the result is often a deadly head-on collision between two vehicles traveling at highway speed.

According to reports, 36-year-old Cory Allen Sheward was driving his pickup under the influence of alcohol, and somehow wound up traveling south in the northbound lanes of the West Virginia Turnpike around 1:30 a.m. His vehicle struck an SUV with eight passengers, an extended family returning from a trip to Disney World. Four of the SUV’s passengers were killed and four others seriously injured. Sheward was charged with four counts of driving under the influence with death, four counts of DUI with serious bodily injury, aggravated DUI, and wrong-way driving on the interstate.

The National Transportation Safety Board has investigated similar accidents to ascertain the various causes and has proposed fixes to prevent future occurrences. They found that the factors giving rise to wrong-way driving accidents are human and environmental. The human factors include:

  • Drunk drivers — The leading factor in wrong-way driving collisions is alcohol impairment, often in excess of 0.15 percent blood alcohol content, or almost twice the legal limit. In such cases, drivers are so drunk that they don’t realize they are entering a freeway up the exit ramp or don’t recognize when they cross a median into oncoming traffic.
  • Older drivers — The NTSB’s statistical analysis found that drivers over the age of 70 were over-represented among fatal wrong-way driving crashes. They make up only three percent of all drivers, but are 15 percent of wrong-way drivers involved in fatal crashes.
  • Drug-impaired drivers — Both illegal and legal drugs can interfere with driving by causing a wide variety of symptoms: “dizziness, drowsiness, tremors, rigidity, confusion, hypoglycemia, hypotension, and blurred vision.”

The NTSB study found that environmental factors linked to wrong-way crashes involved highway design and construction, including:

  • Signage and pavement markings — Given what we know about the type of motorist who is prone to wrong-way driving, federal regulations for signage are not detailed enough to address the issue effectively. One Way and Do Not Enter signs are often not posted in the optimal space to catch a driver’s attention. Supplemental signage could make the danger more apparent.
  • Interchange and ramp designs — Studies indicate that certain interchange design features seem to invite wrong-way driving. These include left-hand exit ramps, exit ramps terminating at two-way streets, interchanges with short distances at their decision points, and exit ramps with rounded corners.

The NTSB hopes that a combination of strategies to address impaired driving and redesign to discourage wrong-way freeway access can reduce this very deadly type of collision.

The Giatras Law Firm, PLLC is a respected personal injury and auto accident law firm in Charleston, West Virginia known for aggressive auto accident representation. Call us or contact our firm online to schedule a free consultation.