Data shows wrong-way crashes aren't a new phenomenon in Tampa Bay (w/video)

Age, impairment and time of day are factors that stand out among the data collected by the Times.
Published November 9 2014
Updated November 9 2014

TAMPA — In February, four University of South Florida fraternity brothers died after a wrong-way driver slammed into their car on Interstate 275. Two weeks later, a man driving the wrong way in the same area killed himself when he smashed into a box truck. In August, another man died in a wrong-way crash on the same highway. Four more people died in two crashes the following month.

The deadly collisions on Tampa Bay area interstates — six in all, claiming 11 lives — drew national attention and much speculation as to causes. Experts weighed in with theories. Law enforcement stepped up patrols in an effort to prevent them.

But the wrong-way drivers keep coming — four more were stopped since October. And that shouldn't be surprising.

A Tampa Bay Times review of Florida Highway Patrol records shows that wrong-way driving is an astonishingly common phenomenon in the Tampa Bay area.

In the past seven years, troopers have responded to at least 70 incidents of wrong-way drivers on limited-access highways around Tampa Bay. That tally does not include nearly 700 wrong-way incidents that occurred on local streets in 2014 alone.

The reasons for the problem, and proposed solutions, are complex. Some have hypothesized that interstate construction zones might be confusing drivers. Others have suggested making wrong-way signs more visible at exit ramps.

But among the data the Times collected, one pattern stands out: drunken driving. In almost all of the wrong-way driving cases that resulted in a crash, and in all six of this year's fatal wrecks, the drivers were legally impaired.

That, law enforcement officials say, is the real issue. And that's what makes it difficult to stop.

"This is a driver problem," said Sgt. Steve Gaskins of the Florida Highway Patrol. "If it was truly an engineering problem, then everybody would be going the wrong way."

• • •

A light rain fell as Rodney Williams headed south on Interstate 75 in his Ford Expedition in the early hours of Jan. 31. He was five minutes away from his Ruskin home when the headlights came at him.

A red Jeep Cherokee, heading north in the southbound lanes, smashed into a Toyota Corolla in front of him. Williams, 37, swerved as the Jeep sideswiped his SUV, sending him rolling into a ditch.

He remembers using scissors to cut himself out of his seat belt. He remembers seeing a third car slam into debris that littered the highway.

"I used to wake up in cold sweats thinking about it," he said. "It's by the grace of God that I was okay."

The Corolla's driver, Erica Johnston, 25, had a concussion and cuts from broken glass. She has no memory of the crash.

The driver who hit them, Daniel Storlien, 45, told troopers he had been drinking at Evie's, an Ellenton bar, before he started driving. He had a suspended driver's license. He also had five prior convictions for driving under the influence. The crash made it six.

"He needs help," Williams said of Storlien. "I really don't know if flashing lights on roadway signs is going to deter people like that."

Troopers were unable to determine how Storlien ended up going the wrong way. That isn't unusual. In cases where it is known, experts say drivers typically go up an exit ramp. In some cases, they start out driving the right direction before making a U-turn.

• • •

Impaired driving due to alcohol or drugs was a factor in about two-thirds of the wrong-way driving cases in the past four years in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties. In at least five of those incidents, the driver at fault had a prior DUI conviction.

They are people like Christopher Ponce.

On July 19, 2012, Ponce went south in the northbound lanes of I-275 near downtown Tampa and crashed into a car carrying three men, killing one. Ponce, 24, of Tampa had a prior DUI conviction in Leon County in addition to several other traffic offenses, according to state records. He later fled home confinement while awaiting trial for DUI manslaughter and remains a fugitive.

They are people like Tony Shumaker.

On Nov. 18, 2011, Shumaker, 62, drove east in the westbound lanes of the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway, which was closed for construction, and crashed into a crane. Shumaker, who told troopers he was returning home to Tampa from a guitar show in St. Petersburg, had four prior DUI convictions. The crash made five and netted him a two-year prison sentence.

In other cases, though, the accused had clean driving histories when they landed a DUI charge. Kevin Thomas Smisor, who was a Chamberlain High School teacher, had just a single speeding violation on his state driving record in September when authorities say he went east in the westbound lanes of the Selmon Expressway. He made it into the southbound lanes of I-75 before a trooper stopped him.

Smisor, 24, said he was coming from Sarasota and heading to Tampa — the opposite direction from which he was traveling, according to an arrest report. He showed signs of drunkenness and failed sobriety exercises. His DUI charge is pending in court.

"I don't think this is a situation where (wrong-way driving) is a major issue in itself," said Joanna Newton, executive director for the Tampa chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "I think it goes back to what we've always known, which is that if you're impaired, you can't get behind the wheel of a car."

But while drunken driving is the most obvious pattern in wrong-way crashes, it's not the only one. Others included time of day: Almost all of the incidents the Times reviewed happened in the late evening or early morning hours.

Age is another factor. Most of the drivers in local wrong-way cases were younger than 40. A 2012 nationwide study of wrong-way crashes by the National Transportation Safety Board found that senior citizens were often at fault. But the local trends appear to be mostly consistent with nationwide data.

There are, of course, some exceptions to the patterns.

Nicholas Flammia, 24, was sober on July 5 when he drove north in the southbound lanes of I-275 near the I-375 split in St. Petersburg, according to an FHP report. He later told troopers that before he hit two other cars he realized he was going the wrong way and tried to turn around.

Flammia probably entered the highway by going the wrong way on I-175 from downtown St. Petersburg, a trooper wrote. But it is unclear whether road signs, exit ramp designs, or some other factor led him to go the wrong way. Flammia, who was issued a citation for the crash, declined to comment.

• • •

Determining whether particular exit or entrance ramps on Tampa Bay area highways are vulnerable to wrong-way driving is an arduous task that would require study, said Don Karol, director of the Office of Highway Safety for the National Transportation Safety Board.

A look at the locations where incidents have happened does show at least one small cluster on I-275 in Tampa near downtown and the I-4 junction. But it is difficult to say why that is.

The incidents do not appear to happen because of road work: few of the crashes have occurred in or near construction zones. Likewise, besides the recent spate of fatalities, there is nothing to indicate that wrong-way driving happens here more than anywhere else.

"Wrong-way driving is pretty much a national problem, not specific to Florida or the Tampa Bay area," Karol said. "To address this problem requires a holistic approach. There's no silver bullet, or one solution."

Karol, one of the authors of a 2012 NTSB study, noted that wrong-way crashes are rare, accounting for just 3 percent of traffic fatalities. Still, the consequences are often severe.

The study included a number of traffic engineering recommendations with the goal of deterring drivers from entering highways the wrong way. They included things like redesigning problematic highway interchanges, changing the height of "wrong way" and "do not enter" signs near exit ramps, and installing lights triggered to flash when someone heads up an exit. Some places, including California, have seen a reduction in wrong-way crashes as a result of such measures, Karol said.

Locally, the Department of Transportation has taken some steps with plans to install wrong-way detection systems at 80 interchanges in the Tampa Bay area by mid 2015.

But will any of this deter those who drive drunk?

"It's going to take more than flashing lights at intersections or telling people to take a cab," said Newton, of MADD. "It's going to take people saying 'no more.' "

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

                     
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