The media is rife with news and information regarding drunk and drugged driving topics. Attracting increased attention is the volume of drunk drivers who drive the wrong way on highways.
A double fatality due to a fiery wrong-way, alcohol-fueled vehicle accident on a New Mexico stretch of Interstate 25 last September spurred new discussion regarding design flaws on interstates and how best to improve safety. According to the Albuquerque Journal, Santa Fe public safety and Department of Transportation (DOT) officials asserted there are no design issues, even amidst frequent crashes on interstates around and through the city limits, and that the only way to reduce DWI accidents is to stop drinking and driving in the first place.
On 24 September 2016, 23-year-old Anton Gress—a bartender at a local restaurant/spa was driving to his father’s house when his SUV smashed head-on into the vehicle driven by extremely intoxicated 43-year-old Clara Avina. Both perished in the accident: Avina upon impact, and Gress burned to death as first responders could not rescue his pinned body from his vehicle. Avina, who was driving south in the interstate’s northbound lane, had a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .29—nearly four times the legal limit, according to the state Medical Examiner.
This was not the first time wrong way drunk drivers caused fatal accidents in New Mexico. In 2006, Dana Papst killed himself and a Las Vegas, New Mexico family of five while driving his pickup truck the wrong way; and in 2010, Kylene Holmes killed herself and injured her passenger and an ambulance driver. Both were extremely intoxicated when they caused their respective accidents, and both were driving the wrong way.
Frequency of Drunk Wrong-Way Drivers
According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), in 2012, drunk drivers were responsible for 60 percent of wrong-way vehicle collisions. Additionally, whereas wrong-way drivers caused roughly three percent of divided highway accidents, they were 100 times more likely to be fatal. Furthermore, the Arizona Department of Transportation found in November 2015 that its state records an average of 270 deaths annually due to wrong-way driving.
What To Do?
Despite an increase in the use of ignition interlock devices as a preventive measure to curb drunk drivers, new ideas are sorely needed.
Beginning in 2015, officials in Florida and Rhode Island began examining how to reduce the problem of wrong-way collisions by using existing infrastructure. For starters, both states installed flashing red lights on their “Wrong Way” signs, as well as overhead electronic billboards that notify drivers that someone is going the wrong way. Authorities are also alerted. In Tampa Bay, for example, 17 wrong-way alerts notified drivers in April 2016 alone.
Whereas New Mexico has already installed flashing red lights, the state is also considering adopting the billboard notification system to reduce its incidence of fatal wrong-way, alcohol-fueled accidents. However, the steep price may not be feasible given the state’s $69 million deficit for FY 2016-2017.
Other considerations include improved pavement markings, illuminated and/or flashing signage, automatic gates, cameras, and improved entry and exit ramp designs, for starters. Among the improved pavement markings which have attracted attention are larger, more reflective signs, as well as red buttons in the highway that reflect back upon a potential wrong-way driver. Additionally, spike strips in place to flatten the tires of drivers who attempt to enter a highway going the wrong way have also entered the debate. Arguments against the latter include the possibility that a drunk driver will continue to drive his/her hobbled vehicle and/or park and exit the vehicle.
Many experts allege that blinking lights do not faze drunk drivers because impaired drivers tend to look at the road and not signs. New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas stated that even flashing lights on police cars seldom faze drunk drivers given the high rate of police cars which are hit by drunk drivers.
Even if the New Mexico DOT wanted to adopt some of this technology, it may not have the money to do so as the state is facing a $69 million deficit for the fiscal year that ends June 2017. Despite the steep costs, other states have begun to examine these new tools.