Sometimes the only good that comes out of tragedy is change. That is exactly what’s taking place in the aftermath of Florida’s recent spate of deadly wrong way accidents. Just last year, 15 people lost their lives in high speed, head-on crashes caused by wrong way drivers in Tampa Bay.
On August 13th, two more people lost their lives in a head-on wrong-way crash in north Tampa, leaving behind children, spouses, even a new baby boy. The impact of the tragedies is mounting. Friends, families, and advocates of these victims are fighting to give their lives meaning and make things right for the rest of the drivers on the road.
Tampa’s New Flashing Wrong Way Signs are a Testament to a Grieving Father’s Love
Two years ago, a father’s fight to prevent wrong way tragedies like his daughter’s began. After twenty-one year old Marisa and her best friend were lost forever to a wrong-way crash, Gary Catronio successfully lobbied the Florida Department of Transportation to start installing preventative wrong way driver devices at problem locations. It seems he set a series of events in motion to end wrong way driving tragedies.
The radar activated systems detect traffic travelling in the wrong direction. Then they activate flashing lights on the wrong way signs, while taking a photo and notifying FHP.
So far, pilot programs at 3 interchanges have succeeded at stopping 6 wrong-way drivers who were alerted by flashing lights once they entered the road. With the success so far, FDOT is considering installing the flashing lights at all 80 of the interchanges on I-4, I-75 and I-275, possibly as early as this fall.
The first sensors in Tampa were put in place a few months ago at the ramps on Fowler and I-275. More recently, the systems were added to Bearss and Fletcher Avenues, then Busch.
There are two at every interchange, one on either side of the road, at a cost of $25,000 each. Mr. Catronio believes the $50,000 cost per exit is worth it. “Knowing another family doesn’t have to go through what we did on that night is an emotional thing,” he said. (read more here. Source: Evan Axelbank, Fox 13 Tampa Bay)
More Than Half of Wrong Way Crashes Here Involve Young Adults, Much Higher Than the National Average
According to studies by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), the percentage of wrong way crashes in the 20-29 year old age group in FDOT District 7 are roughly one and a half times the national average. District 7 includes Citrus, Hernado, Hillsborugh, Pasco, and Pinellas counties. Nationally, 35% of wrong way crashes involved 20-29 year-olds, whereas 52% of wrong way crashes in the District 7 counties were in that age range.
Wrong Way Crashes Here are Responsible for Double the Rate of Expressway Fatalities Compared to the National Average
Though the percentage of fatalities on limited access highways (including expressways, interstates, and other roads with limited entry points) due to wrong way crashes is small, it is much higher in District 7. NTSB and FDOT studies show that nationally, the percentage of limited access roadway fatalities is 3%, whereas in District 7, it is double that rate, at 6%. According to the most recent FDOT study, one of the areas in which “wrong way crashes resulting in fatalities were proportionally higher” is District 7.
It is believed that the low number of wrong way crashes relative to total accidents may in part be because only a small percentage of wrong way drivers end up crashing (<1%), with most realizing their mistake and self-correcting. Unfortunately, due to the high-impact nature of wrong way accidents, they are more often than not fatal or incapacitating. According to FDOT crash data from 2008-2014, that percentage was 63%. At times, efforts to self-correct also result in wrong way crashes, when drivers make u-turns, as was the case in 3 fatal accidents on I-275 last year.
What Can You and Your Loved Ones Do to Remain Safe? Practice Wrong Way Driver Defense.
The numbers are clear. By far, most wrong way accidents happen in the early morning hours on weekends, with impaired drivers behind the wheel. First of all, keep in mind that your odds of being involved in a wrong way accident are much higher on a Friday or Saturday night, between 1 and 4 AM. If you are a parent of a young adult, make sure they are aware of the statistics and heed the following pointers from Sargeant Steve Gaskins, FHP spokesman.
Aside from being sure you take a cab or Uber or get a ride with a designated driver after a weekend night of drinking, here are some defensive driving measures you can take:
- Remain distraction-free when driving. No texting and driving. Stay off the phone. Avoid as much as possible any activities (selecting music, chatting, etc) that make you less alert.
- On the expressway, drive in the far right lane. Since wrong way drivers may think they are driving the right way in a 2-directional road, they are more likely to be driving toward you in what is your left lane. Stay out of that lane and stay right.
- Look as far down the road as possible. Take control of the speed, distance, and time involved in a potential crash. The more time you have to react, the better. (It’s science.)
- Safely alert FHP if you see a wrong way driver. Make sure you pull over and are parked, out of harms way, then dial 911.
- Safely alert other drivers. Flash your high beams, honk your horn. Do what you can to alert other drivers without endangering yourself.
Wrong Way Driver Prevention: Looking Forward
What’s in store for wrong way driver prevention in Florida? The three E’s are believed to be at the heart of solving the wrong way driving problem as we move forward: Education, Enforcement, and Engineering. Additionally, studies are underway, sponsored by FDOT, that aim to better understand the causes of and to improve the methods used to prevent wrong way driver accidents.
FDOT Funded University Research to Improve Understanding of WWD Causes and Effectiveness of Countermeasures
One research program is a $220,000 driver simulation study at FSU titled Driving Simulator Studies of the Effectiveness of Countermeasures to Prevent Wrong Way Crashes. It began in June 2014 and is slated to be completed by September 2015.
The other FSU study is a Human Factors Study designed to understand what leads up to wrong way driving choices, especially with regard to the elderly. It is Understanding Contributing Factors to Wrong-way Crashes and Evaluating the Effectiveness of Countermeasures in Reducing Wrong Way Crash Risk of Older Drivers. The $204,000 study began in January of this year and will be completed by August 2016.
The third study is sponsored by FDOT District 7. This study is underway at USF’s Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR) under the direction of Dr. Pei-Sung Lin. It’s a two-dimensional study. On one level, the researchers will assess the effectiveness of the wrong-way Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacon (RRFB) installed at I-275 off-ramps at Fowler, Fletcher, and Bearss avenues on deterring wrong-way driving. Before the wrong-way RRFB implementation, they conducted a public opinion survey of approximately 300 participants on different combinations of wrong-way signs and locations of flashing beacons to determine which wrong-way RRFB combination is the best at inducing correction by the driver. The other aspect of the study is to determine how the wrong-way RRFBs affect traffic on the highway near off-ramps, to make sure there is no diverse effect.
The evaluation result could be reported to FDOT as early as this summer on whether the implementation of wrong-way RRFBs have any adverse effect on driving behaviors on adjacent highways, but the study of crash reduction via the wrong-way RRFB implementation could continue for another two to three years. According to Dr. Pei-Sung Lin, they will continue to accumulate wrong-way incident and crash data before making a final conclusion, but “so far, it looks good.”
All studies will result in recommendations to FDOT for improvements to wrong way crash prevention methods.
Public Education to Reduce Impaired Wrong Way Driving
MADD is in the process of developing an educational action plan in concert with traffic safety partners in the community, and will be releasing that to the public once it is finalized. As the majority of wrong way crashes involve impaired drivers, MADD will continue to work alongside law enforcement to help restaurants and bars reduce the likelihood of patrons driving home drunk.
The S.A.V.E. program, Sheriff’s Alcohol Vendor Enforcement, does just that. By doing last drink surveys with people arrested for DUI, Hillsborough County law enforcement compiles a list of “Top 10 ” alcohol vendors attributed to DUI arrests every month. Officers as well as MADD representatives visit the Top 5 on the list each month to educate them and try to reduce the DUI’s connected to their establishments, as well as curb any underage drinking. Yearly awards are given to recognize the most improved.
Since, according to HCSO statistics, Tampa vendors make up the entirety of the 2014 list, the city of Tampa is a good place for DUI and underage education initiatives to start. The connection between the predominantly young age of of wrong way crash victims and the underage drinking problem that exists is one that’s difficult, and costly, to ignore.
Dr Pei-Sung Lin stresses the importance of education and community outreach to bridge the gap between wrong-way crashes caused by confused drivers and those caused by drunk drivers. Both MADD and USF are in cooperation with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) to improve public education of the issue. Dr. Pei-Sung Lin offered this explanation:
‘HCSO partners with alcohol vendors and retailers and create a proactive collaboration to inform and educate employees and managers. The goal is to reduce alcohol-related traffic crashes and deaths in Hillsborough County. The Sheriff’s Office collects “last drink” information from individuals arrested in Hillsborough County for DUI. This is accomplished by asking every offender, “Where were you last drinking?” Their responses, which are voluntary, are then compiled into a database. A list of the “Top 10” alcohol vendors attributed to DUI arrests is compiled every month. This “Top 10” list is then used to work with those vendors to reduce the DUI’s connected to their establishments by the arrestees. When you reduce the drunk drivers on the road, you reduce the chance they will go the wrong way.’
He further explained that the wrong-way RRFBs being put in place and evaluated by USF may still help those drivers who have only had one or two beers. At the very least, they are still awake. But the real impact of the wrong-way RRFBs will be the 40% of confused wrong-way drivers who may be confused or unfamiliar with the road and don’t realize they’ve made a wrong turn.”
Enforcement to Stop Wrong Way Drivers in Their Tracks
Law enforcement responded to the rash of wrong way tragedies in 2014 by stepping up patrols in search of impaired and wrong way drivers before it’s too late and will continue to do so. With statistics pointing toward Tampa as the primary problem area, FHP has increased DUI operations in Tampa, especially on weekends.
Very aware of the link between wrong way accidents and impairment, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office operates a dedicated DUI Team, known as Operation 3D Squad. Their focus is education, deterrence, and enforcement. The 3D DUI Squad accounted for 70% of the DUI investigations conducted by HCSO in 2014. Additionally, the 3D DUI Squad conducted 7 Checkpoints & 31 Saturations. In 2012 and 2013, HCSO was recognized by Florida MADD regarding their DUI enforcement efforts, and has again been nominated in 2015 for an award.
Wrong way drivers may eventually face harsher penalties. Just this year bills were introduced in other states including Ohio and California, and earlier in New York, to make wrong way driving a much more serious crime. Such legislation has yet to be introduced in Florida, but with the recent emphasis on wrong way driver prevention in the state, it’s only a matter of time.
Engineering to Reduce Wrong-way Accident Rates
In addition to the countermeasures being studied and tested in pilot programs throughout the state, there are technological advances to vehicles that will help drivers avoid wrong way accidents in the future. Studies have been conducted by Toyota and BMW, and currently Mercedes and Lexus offer models with in-vehicle technology to warn drivers of wrong-way movements.
The primary obstacle to adoption of the technology by car makers is the lack of standards in the various GPS systems used to determine wrong way locations. The NTSB recommended in their 2014 report that the Society of Automotive Engineers and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Global Automakers, and the Consumer Electronics Association all work together to develop standards for GPS wrong-way navigation alerts.
Hopefully, it won’t be long before the technology of in-vehicle wrong-way driver alerts is accessible to general population. Combined with the technology of flashing wrong way lights, and radar-activated messages to alert drivers of oncoming drivers, we will get ever closer to the “100% preventable” mark that many, including Gary Catronio and MADD, believe we should strive to reach. Until then, we must all do what we can to be responsible drivers and remain vigilant and safe.
Moving Forward: Our Responsibility to the Tampa Community
As suggested by Troy Morgan of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, “Have a heightened awareness of how important it really is to be alert when you are operating your vehicle, because there are always going to be drivers on the road who are not taking that responsibility.” As members of the Tampa community, we all play a part when we take to the roads. Tampa’s August 13th fatal wrong-way crash could have happened to any one of us. It took the life of 53 year old Catherine Fleming as she drove to work just after 6 AM, behind another driver who swerved to avoid the oncoming car and lived to tell about it. An act as mundane as reminding ourselves to drive alert can be the difference between life and death. It was for the fortunate driver who survived this latest tragedy.