UPDATE: Andy Andreia Cuff was released on bail early Friday morning.
ST. PETERSBURG — A woman was critically injured Thursday when a suspected drunk driver made a U-turn and headed the wrong way on one of Tampa Bay’s busiest bridges for the second time in less than two weeks. It was the latest in a spate of dangerous wrong-way crashes.
Andy Andreia Cuff Jr. was driving north on the Howard Frankland Bridge when he made a U-turn near the hump and went in the opposite direction in the same northbound lanes, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. His 2008 Chrysler 300 rammed into Andrea Nicole Rusch’s 2013 Hyundai about 1:50 a.m. near Fourth Street N.
Rusch, 24, was in "very critical condition" Thursday at St. Joseph’s Hospital, patrol spokesman Sgt. Steve Gaskins said. Cuff, 25, was treated and turned over to the Pinellas County Jail, where he is facing a charge of DUI with serious injury.
The circumstances echo a crash last month in which a Pinellas Park man turned around on the same side of the bridge as Cuff and drove two to three miles before hitting a van. The wrong-way driver, Renard Antonio McGriff, died at the scene. The driver of the van was hospitalized with critical injuries.
The crashes have more than just location in common.
"The common denominator in these wrong-way crashes is an impaired driver. Every time," said Larry Coggins, executive director of the West Central Florida chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Cuff’s hospital blood tests showed that his blood alcohol content was more than twice 0.08, Gaskins said, the limit at which you are considered legally too impaired to drive. When deputies booked Cuff into the jail Thursday morning, more than six hours after the crash, a breath test showed he was still at 0.08 percent, Gaskins said. His official toxicology results are pending. Cuff was being held in jail late Thursday in lieu of $5,000 bail.
Troopers said alcohol was a factor in McGriff’s crash, too. The 46-year-old was supposed to appear in court for a separate DUI case hours after the crash.
Two days later, in Hillsborough County, a Seffner man who police later said had a blood alcohol level of 0.275 percent drove the wrong way with his lights off on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway. The car Stephen Paleveda was driving collided head-on with another, killing Bamnet Narongchai, a 68-year-old grandfather.
"It was evident that he had a complete disregard for the safety of the community," a judge said while ruling that Paleveda be held in jail without bail.
The problem is frustrating for officials and advocates who say the problem can’t be stopped with enforcement and road design changes.
"It’s just absolutely dumbfounding that here in 2018 with all the opportunities people have to get home safely, here is another driver who chose to do the wrong thing," Coggins said.
This rash of crashes is reminiscent of a deadly spate of six crashes over seven months in 2014 that killed 11 people. Pinellas and Hillsborough counties are the worst in Florida when it comes to impaired driving, Coggins said, pointing to Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles data.
It shows Hillsborough had an average of 528 crashes where alcohol was a factor between 2014 and 2016. The more populous Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties had far fewer. Pinellas had 355, third behind Miami-Dade.
"Drinking and driving in the Tampa Bay area is a public health epidemic," Coggins said.
Times senior researchers Caryn Baird and John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Kathryn at (727) 893-8913 or [email protected] Follow @kathrynvarn.