A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Latest Kentucky tragedy is stark reminder of continued wrong-way crashes; know risk factors

It’s a problem that continues to put all road users at risk: motorists driving the wrong way down a divided highway. The latest tragedy Sunday night on Interstate Highway 75 in Lexington resulting in yet another fatality from wrong-way driving will likely mark the 81st wrong-way crash in Kentucky in 2023. Based on Kentucky State Police crash data leading up to the incident, the crash would be the first fatality and 57th injury from a wrong-way driver crash in the Commonwealth this year.

Witnesses took to social media Sunday night, describing a vehicle traveling at a high rate of speed without headlights on and in the wrong direction on I-75 southbound.

Wrong way. (Photo from AAA Foundation website

“This weekend’s crash is another example of how wrong-way driving often results in severe injury or fatality due to the likelihood of head-on collisions, often at high rates of speed,” says Lori Weaver Hawkins, public affairs manager, AAA Blue Grass. “In addition to the potential risk to the driver, this kind of behavior puts other motorists at serious risk as well. AAA Foundation for Traffic Research has found that occupants of other vehicles are nearly as likely to be killed by a wrong-way driver as the driver themselves.”

Weaver Hawkins says never was the threat of wrong-way driving crashes perhaps more evident than in 2021 when two fatal crashes within 24 hours left seven dead, including four children. Those deaths were among a total number of 24 fatalities due to wrong-way crashes that year.

Growing problem in Kentucky, across the nation

According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), fatalities resulting from wrong-way driving crashes involve high–speed, head–on or opposite direction sideswipe crashes, which tend to be more severe than other types of traffic crashes. In 2020, the FHWA reports there were 507 wrong-way driving fatalities, up from 451 in 2016.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has warned of the escalating threat of fatal wrong-way driving crashes across the nation, noting that between 2010 and 2018, there were 2,921 fatal wrong-way crashes resulting in 3,885 deaths—an average of 430 deaths per year. Over half of those deaths were wrong-way drivers (52.8%) and a small percentage were their passengers (5.7%), while about four in 10 (41.1%) were occupants of other vehicles.

That data also shows that in Kentucky, there was an average of 4.3 fatalities between 2010 and 2018. But that number has been on the rise. According to Kentucky State Police data, there were 15 fatalities in 2019, 16 fatalities in 2020, 24 fatalities in 2021 and 18 fatalities in 2022, all attributed to wrong-way driving.

Researchers found that the odds of being a wrong-way driver increased with alcohol impairment, older age and driving without any passengers. AAA works with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and other traffic safety organizations to educate drivers on the deadly impact of wrong-way driving and urges state transportation agencies to adopt driver-based countermeasures that address these factors. Examples include alcohol ignition interlocks, strengthened deterrence strategies like sobriety checkpoints, driver refresher courses for older adults and the installation of more-visible signs and signals.
Impairment, older age and driving solo are risk factors

When researchers took a closer look at eight factors related to these types of crashes, three stood out―alcohol-impairment, older age, and driving without a passenger. Six in 10 wrong-way crashes involved an alcohol-impaired driver. Those with blood alcohol concentrations over the legal limit of 0.08 g/dl* were significantly more likely to be wrong-way drivers than non-alcohol-impaired drivers involved in the same crashes.

“Impairment in driving is not limited to just alcohol; it also includes impairment by other drugs—legal or illicit,” reminds Weaver Hawkins. “But alcohol impairment is by far the single most significant factor in the majority of wrong-way driving crashes.”

Interventions like ignition interlock devices for all offenders and high-visibility enforcement operations will reduce these types of devastating crashes, she adds. AAA supported Kentucky’s Ignition Interlock Device bill that was passed and went into effect July 1, 2020.

Aging increases risk

AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety research data also shows that drivers over age 70 are more at risk of wrong-way driving than their younger counterparts. Previous Foundation research from the AAA Longitudinal Research on Aging Drivers (LongROAD) project found that older drivers aged 75-79 spent less time on the road and drove fewer miles per trip than younger age groups.  And yet, this same age group is over-represented in wrong-way crashes.

Driving solo increases risk

A passenger’s presence may offer some protection against being a wrong-way driver, as nearly 87% of wrong-way drivers were alone. Passengers may alert drivers that they are entering a one-way road, preventing them from entering the highway in the wrong direction, or alerting them to their error, helping the driver take corrective action before a crash occurs.

Infrastructure countermeasures
In addition to alcohol ignition interlock devices and high-visibility enforcement, AAA and the NTSB want state policymakers to consider widely used effective infrastructure countermeasures, such as installing more-visible traffic signs and signals that follow national standards and at proper locations.

Because older drivers are over-represented in wrong-way collisions, AAA and the NTSB also urge states to change their laws to help identify medically at-risk drivers, both physically and cognitively, to keep everyone safely driving as long as possible.

AAA and the NTSB remind drivers to use common sense before getting behind the wheel:

• If you are driving, don’t drink. If you are drinking, don’t drive.  If you consume alcohol, marijuana or potentially impairing prescription medications, then don’t drive.

• Stay alert.
Stop driving if you become sleepy because you could fall asleep at any time. Fatigue impacts reaction time and judgment, causing people who are very tired to behave in similar ways to those who are drunk.


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