Another Wrong-Way Death in the PHX; Are We Really That Bad?

Grand Canyon University in Phoenix was closed for Good Friday, the same day that two students were killed in an wrong-way freeway crash eight miles away.
Grand Canyon University in Phoenix was closed for Good Friday, the same day that two students were killed in an wrong-way freeway crash eight miles away. Sean Holstege

If you watched much of the bleeding and leading newscasts the last couple weeks, you’d think there couldn’t possibly be anywhere with worse drivers, particularly the kind that tend to get drunk and plow into oncoming traffic.

How anyone fails to tell the difference between an on-ramp and an off-ramp, marked by large, red "wrong way" signs, eludes most right-thinking people, but here we are once again talking about the scourge of wrong-way drivers in metro Phoenix.

There have been some bad ones recently, including:

• A Good Friday crash killed two Grand Canyon University Students and the young man that hit them on Interstate 17.

• In March, two people went to hospital in bad shape after a head-on crash, which closed parts of Loop 202.

• Over Memorial Day weekend, some bonehead caused four crashes in Mesa and closed U.S. 60.

• This morning, a driver going the wrong way on I-17 was killed in a head-on crash in Phoenix.
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Grand Canyon University in Phoenix was closed for Good Friday, the same day that two students were killed in an wrong-way freeway crash eight miles away.
Sean Holstege

But a closer look at crash statistics shows that it’s a signal-and-noise issue. On average, our drivers are actually a lot better than most and better than they’ve been.

Folks at the Arizona Department of Public Safety report that to date in 2017, dispatchers have taken 698 reports of wrong-way drivers. By the same time last year, they had taken 740. The highway patrol arrested 32 wrong-way drivers for DUI, which is a common problem in these incidents. Last year, they arrested 42.

The highway patrol rolled out to eight injury crashes in the first five months of both years, but this year, half were fatal, compared to a quarter this time in 2016.

DPS didn’t track it as closely before the middle of 2015.

But the feds did. A Phoenix New Times analysis of data from 2013 to 2015 shows that Arizona is one of the safest states in the country for fatal head-on-crashes. Not what you’d expect, right?

In 2015, Arizona ranked ninth for the lowest number of fatal highway head-on crashes per person. The worst were South Dakota and Wyoming, where the fatality rate in such crashes was six times higher than Arizona’s.
The same pattern held in 2013 and 2014. Arizona was low, while upper mountain states led the pack.

Maricopa County doesn’t fare quite so well in the data kept by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, or NHTSA.

In 2013, Maricopa County ranked 10th on the total number of fatal head-on crashes on highways, with five. San Bernardino County, California, was the worst, with 11 such crashes.

In 2014, our seven fatal crashes placed us in third. The worst was the county surrounding Tampa Bay, Florida, where people died in 11 head-ons.

In 2015, it was Austin’s turn to earn the gold medal for deadliest place, with 14 fatal head-ons. But Maricopa County that year saw just two, dropping it all the way to a 102 rank.

Bear in mind, there are more than 3,000 counties in the United States.

The scourge is not a new one.

Researchers at Texas A&M University’s Texas Transportation Institute found that half of all wrong-way collisions kill or cripple.

Drunken drivers cause three-quarters of all wrong-way crashes, of which half occur around 2 a.m., the NHTSA reported.

California began studying the problem in 1967 and instituted “wrong way” signs. Since then, other states, including Arizona, have steadily chipped away with innovations of their own.

In 2011, after a similar spate of crashes, the Arizona Department of Transportation launched a new round of experiments to see if they could engineer highway features to reduce the number of people entering freeways on the off-ramps.

The ultimate goal was years away. The idea was to link embedded roadway sensors to the state's traffic-control center. From there, ADOT can send automatic alerts to Highway Patrol units and to electronic highway signs for motorists.

"The Star Wars version is to connect it ... and let drivers know by changeable message signs that there is a wrong-way driver headed toward them," ADOT safety engineer Michael Manthey said at the time. "This detection system is cutting-edge. Right now, the state of the art is a static sign."

The short-term solution, ADOT found, was to raise the “wrong way” signs to eye level and make them bigger. ADOT also tested raised “cats-eyes” reflectors colored red to be a more visible warning to wrong-way drivers.

Some ideas were popular and made common sense, but didn’t pass muster with the engineers.

After a bad head-on crash in the Valley, people often ask, why not put those one-way spikes in at the top of the off-ramps, like the ones that stop people returning to a parking lot?

California tested them and found impaired drivers could still get on the freeway. The other barriers, like the raised ones you see at airport car-rental lots, were deemed too dangerous. Automatic gates, like those at railroad crossings, took too long to raise and lower. Horns and flashing lights proved to be ineffective as well as annoying.

As Arizona drivers await a Star Wars engineering solution, and hopefully not a Death Star, it’s up to DPS patrol officers to deal with the scary clowns that drive into traffic.

For them, ADOT’s efforts are one of the three Es needed to rein in the scourge, the others being enforcement and education.

Responsibility doesn’t start with an E, but it’s also high on DPS’s list.

“Drivers must be responsible when behind the wheel of a vehicle. As in, too many of the wrong-way driving incidents we see, impaired drivers play a major role. Many wrong-way drivers have been found to be impaired by intoxicating beverages or drugs,” DPS spokesman Kameron Lee said.

“It is the responsibility of the driver to stay out of the driver's seat when impaired. It is time the family and friends take the keys away from would-be impaired drivers; if they cannot, they should immediately call 911 so that we can help intervene.”

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Sean Holstege is a former editor of Phoenix New Times. He's been a print news reporter for 35 years. He was an investigative reporter at The Arizona Republic and the Oakland Tribune. He won a Sigma Delta Chi award for investigative reporting. He’s covered transportation, terrorism, the border, disasters, child welfare, courts, and breaking news.
Contact: Sean Holstege