TAMPA — For the second time in as many weeks, a car went the wrong way along a stretch of Interstate 275 in north Tampa, causing a fiery crash as the driver slammed into another vehicle.
It happened early Friday, just 3 miles north of the spot where another wrong-way crash killed five men early on Feb. 9.
This time, only the car's driver, Chase Kaleb Leveille, was killed. The driver and a passenger in the box truck that Leveille ran into had no serious injuries, the Florida Highway Patrol said.
Leveille turned around on the interstate and sped north before crashing, authorities said. State troopers still have not determined how the driver in the Feb. 9 case ended up going the wrong way.
A preliminary investigation showed nothing to link the crashes and their respective causes, a Highway Patrol spokesman said. But despite the lack of an obvious connection, the two deadly incidents have left officials wondering what, if anything, can be done to prevent such crashes.
"In this case, we determined he made a U-turn," FHP Sgt. Steve Gaskins said. "I can't think of any way to prevent somebody from doing something like that."
At least three people called 911 about 2:35 a.m. to report Leveille's red 1993 Honda Civic heading north on the southbound side of I-275. One caller told dispatchers the car had been going south before it made a U-turn north of Busch Boulevard and sped north.
"It wasn't like he was impaired or anything," the caller said. "He was driving perfectly fine."
Leveille passed the exits for Fowler and Fletcher avenues before ramming into an Enterprise rental truck in the center lane just north of Bearss Avenue, troopers said. The car's front end crumpled and caught fire. Leveille, 25, of Riverview was later declared to have died at the scene.
The truck's driver, Jason D. Lullen, 47, of Wesley Chapel, and a passenger, Joe N. Smith, 65, of Tampa, were treated for minor injuries, authorities said. The crash closed the interstate in both directions until about 5:30 a.m. Friday.
Those who knew Leveille could not explain where he was headed or why he might have driven the wrong way.
"I did everything a father should have done for him," said Chad Piester of Brandon, who said he thought of Leveille as a son. "I raised him as mine."
Leveille was a skilled worker who did well working with his hands. For a long time, that meant working with cars for NAPA Auto Parts. In his free time, it meant creating art, through doodles and sketches. On Facebook, he posted numerous pictures of his dogs: Nika, a mixed breed; Mason, a Rottweiler; and Sophie, a German shepherd.
Leveille had an associate's degree in business from Hillsborough Community College, Piester said. Recently, he had gone to work selling home security systems.
His driving record offers few clues about his behavior on the road.
It notes one prior crash, in 2007, after which he received a citation for an improper lane change. He avoided having points assessed on his license by attending defensive driving school, records show.
Earlier that same year, he received three license points after he was found guilty of driving with a suspended license. The reason for the suspension was unclear. He received two other citations: one in 2005 for following too closely and another in 2009 for going 86 mph in a 70 mph zone, records show. Adjudication was withheld in both cases because he attended driving school.
The area of I-275 where Leveille was seen turning around is close to the spot where the five men died in the Feb. 9 crash.
In that case, which is still under investigation, Daniel Lee Morris, 28, got behind the wheel of a friend's Ford Expedition and sped south in I-275's northbound lanes before crashing head-on into a Hyundai Sonata. The Hyundai carried University of South Florida fraternity brothers Dammie Yesudhas, 21, Jobin Kuriakose, 21, Imtiyaz Jim Ilias, 20, and Ankeet Patel, 22.
In both cases, callers reported the wrong-way drivers before they crashed, but authorities had only minutes to try to do anything.
Such crashes are rare, accounting for about 3 percent of all traffic fatalities in Florida, Gaskins said. Still, they are common enough to draw the attention of highway safety officials and academics.
"It happens not often. But it happens," said Pei-Sung Lin of the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida. "Fundamentally, we need to educate people, especially the younger generation, because most crashes are related to alcohol or drugs."
Lin referenced a 2012 study of wrong-way crashes done by researchers at the University of Illinois-Edwardsville. It found that alcohol was a factor in 60 percent of the crashes in that state between 2004 and 2009. The study also found that most crashes happened on weekends between midnight and 5 a.m. At those times, drivers are more likely to become confused because of reduced visibility and fewer cars on the road, Lin said.
Florida transportation officials are looking at two methods of trying to warn drivers about going the wrong way, said Kris Carson, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation. One involves radar to detect when a vehicle is traveling the wrong way, triggering flashing signs. Another system would immediately send a message to the Department of Transportation when a wrong-way driver is detected.
State officials had planned to study both methods over the course of a year. But the time may be shortened in light of recent events, Carson said.
"We don't know if it will make a difference," Carson said. "But we're going to try."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Dan Sullivan can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or [email protected]