Putting the brakes on wrong-way drivers: Finding solutions to deadly crashes
DRAPER, Utah — It’s a terrifying moment: headlights coming toward you, with only a second to react. Wrong-way crashes are often devastating, with cars exploding into pieces when they hit at freeway speeds.
It’s an experience Winter Brailow, 24, survived two years ago.
“As more time passes, more of that night comes salient,” Brailow recalled. “I saw lights up ahead. I didn’t really think, ‘Oh, there’s someone on the wrong side of the road.’”
The night of May 19, 2020, Brailow was headed southbound on Interstate 15 through the Pleasant Grove area, when a driver up ahead pulled a U-turn, and started driving the wrong way.
Brailow tried to exit the freeway in Lindon, but the driver veered into her car.
“I pushed my head all the way back, and boom,” she said. “The next thing I know, I am waking up to two teenage boys just screaming at me, and I’m trapped in my car. So, it was a really scary night.”
The driver who hit her died in the crash. Winter was alive, but badly injured.
“I fought so hard,” she said. “That was one of the longest times that the firefighters have ever had to use the Jaws of Life was to get me out of my car.”
Brailow spent two months in the hospital and underwent 13 surgeries. Her spleen ruptured. She received a traumatic brain injury from the crash. She broke more than 30 bones, including several in her left arm, which she described as “ripped open in the accident and trapped in the car door.”
Two years later, Brailow still sees complications from the crash spring up. “When you start listing all these little things, it starts to just kind of seem absurd.”
Prior to the crash, Brailow was a student at Harvard, with law school aspirations. She’s been able to continue her studies thanks to online learning with the school. Her experiences from the crash prompted her to get into disability law.
Despite the injuries and multiple surgeries, she’s celebrating life.
“I fought really hard to stay alive, and I’m really proud of it,” she beamed. “I’m really proud of still being here and of doing all the things that I’m doing to keep going.”
Still, Brailow pointed out that what she went through should have been prevented.
When she got the crash report weeks later, she said she discovered a six-minute response time between the first 911 calls reporting a wrong-way driver and when law enforcement reached her after the impact.
“It made me angry,” she said. “It made me really angry to find out there was that much time before they got to me.”
On track for the deadliest year of wrong-way crashes
Brailow’s story is one of many devastating tales from Utah highways.
As of July 2022, eight people have died in crashes this year after someone got on the highway going the wrong direction. That number is close to setting a five-year record with five months left in the year.
Fatal Wrong-Way Crashes on Utah Highways
- 2018 — 6 deaths
- 2019 — 2 deaths
- 2020 — 9 deaths
- 2021 — 7 deaths
It demands the question: can anything be done to prevent more deaths?
We took that to the director of traffic and safety at the Utah Department of Transportation, Robert Miles, who said preventing wrong-way wrecks is a priority.
“We want to focus on cutting down the number of crashes and cutting down the number of instances that could become a crash,” Miles said. There are some commonalities with these deadly crashes. Data from UDOT shows seven out of eight fatal wrong-way crashes this year involved an impaired driver. This data only focused on divided freeway crashes and does not include crashes where someone crossed the center line.
Preventing wrong way drivers
Making sure drunk or drug-impaired drivers stay in the right lanes takes some creativity.
“We’ve doubled up on the “do not enter” and “wrong way” signs,” Miles said. “We’ve added in the ability to put some lights around the outside of those signs to help draw attention to them.”
Additionally, UDOT has painted more arrows on roadways at confusing intersections and changed green lights for green arrows to clarify the direction of the lane. While UDOT and the Utah Highway Patrol have only started separating highway wrong way crashes from other head-on crashes in the data, they’re still examining the numbers to see if there are certain hot spots.
KSL took geolocation data from all wrong-way crashes on Utah highways and freeways to see if there were patterns. Some locations, like the offramp from I-80 and I-15 at 600 South, stood out. It’s where two were killed in March after a man drove onto I-15 going the wrong direction.
KSL asked UDOT about another possible tool, one that many viewers have emailed and commented as a solution: embedded strip spikes on freeway on- and off-ramps. Miles said it wouldn’t work for many reasons.
“They’re not really designed to work on large semis that are hitting them at the speed that ours do,” Miles said. “They’re not really designed to work in an area where we put salt down to remove ice during the winter. They get gummed up, they get jammed up, and they’re not really effective to do that.”
Miles mentioned another statistic making tire shredders impractical: most drivers who enter the wrong way realize their mistake and self-correct.
It’s something UDOT has observed through 28 FLIR thermal cameras mounted at various highway entry points statewide. Installed in 2020, the cameras notify UDOT personnel when a vehicle enters the wrong way.
Footage from these cameras show most people turn around before entering the freeway system. If their tires are punctured by a spike strip, it could unnecessarily clog traffic with a disabled vehicle.
The strips may not stop impaired drivers, either.
“The record will show there’s plenty of instances where they keep driving and are still a concern to people,” Miles said.
Currently, the thermal imaging cameras do not have the technology to communicate with the driver or directly with law enforcement, although the latter is a wish list item for UDOT.
“When we find a system that meets those boxes, we’ll push forward in that area,” Miles said. When troopers are the last line of defense
When troopers are the last line of defense
In February, Trooper Devin Henson was called to a wrong-way driver incident on I-15 in Salt Lake County.
“I’m still seeing his headlights, he doesn’t look like he’s slowing down at all,” Henson recalled. “Then he veers to my driver side like he’s trying to get around me, and I know that if he gets around me, he’s still putting other people’s lives in danger.”
Henson made the decision to crash into the driver, who was arrested and booked on suspicion of DUI.
Henson suffered minor injuries.
So far this year, UHP has responded to 99 calls of wrong-way drivers. For Henson, it brings a certain sense of dread.
“I knew I had to eliminate that hazard,” he recalled. “After the fact, back on patrol again, still working graveyard shift, you’re driving down. You see the headlights coming at you and it replays that night of seeing the headlights and they’re actually on the right side of the road and you can calm down a little bit.”
Wrong-way driving is a deadly trend in #Utah with 8 deaths already this year. TONIGHT @ 10 @CindyStClair08 and I go in-depth looking at the problem & possible solutions. You'll also hear from a woman who was hit by a wrong-way driver and how it turned her life upside down.@KSL5TV pic.twitter.com/7Vlnx000KT
— Shara Park ✨ (@KSLSharaPark) July 27, 2022
Stopping drivers with a traffic stop rather than force is the goal for UHP, according to Major Jeff Nigbur.
“We have a wrong way driver task force we’ve created,” Nigbur explained. “We’re looking at ways on how we can identify where these are happening, how we can better enforce.”
With nearly 90% of wrong-way deaths this year involving drug or alcohol impaired drivers, better DUI enforcement could make a difference at troublesome freeway entrances. In recent years, staffing those patrols has been tricky.
“We’ve only had like three or four guys on our DUI squad, and that usually has nine on it,” Nigbur said. “Hopefully with some of the information we get from the task force, we’ll be able to identify hotspots… where we think they’re getting on and hopefully target those areas with the DUI squad to maybe see a decrease in the wrong-way driver issue.”
Ultimately, UHP says wrong-way driving is an issue that can be prevented — by people choosing to drive sober and drive aware.
“Obviously you shouldn’t be driving impaired,” Henson said. “There are easier ways to get around town. Drinking and driving shouldn’t be on the radar of things you can get away with.”
What to do if you encounter a wrong way driver
As state agencies explore solutions, they shared advice to help prevent head-on crashes.
Troopers urged vigilance, with your focus far out in front of your car rather than on the bumper right in front of you, giving you more time to notice a wrong way driver and react.
Keep to the right lanes as much as possible. Most wrong way crashes happen in the left lane.
And if you do encounter someone going the wrong way or crossing a center line, try not to panic or slam on the brakes. Instead, pull over if you’re able to do so safely and get out of the way before calling 911 to report the driver.
Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at firstname.lastname@example.org or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.
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