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There were two fatal wrong-way crashes last weekend. Should we be worried?

SKIP O\u2019ROURKE | Times An electronic road sign warns of a wrong-way driver Oct. 16 on Interstate 275 N near Sligh Avenue. \uFEFF
Published Oct. 23, 2018

A Pinellas Park man made a U-turn on the Howard Frankland Bridge on Friday, driving in the wrong direction for several miles before crashing into a van. The wrong-way driver died at the scene.

Two days later, a Seffner man with his headlights off drove the wrong way on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway. He, too, collided head-on with another vehicle, killing its driver.

Is this the beginning of another deadly stretch similar to 2014, when there were six wrong-way collisions on Tampa Bay interstates in seven months, killing 11 people?

The good news is, probably not. While fatal wrong-way crashes capture public attention, they are relatively rare, said Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Steve Gaskins. Nationally, they account for just 3 percent of traffic fatalities.

But here's the bad news: Alcohol and drugs are usually the defining factors in such crashes, so unless people stop driving while impaired, law enforcement can't stop them from happening.

The Highway Patrol in the Tampa Bay area "leads the state in DUI arrests,'' Gaskins said. "But there are not enough officers to be strung out on every mile of the road."

The toxicology report for Renard Antonio McGriff, the 46-year-old Pinellas Park driver who died Friday, is pending. He was scheduled to appear in court for a DUI arrest just hours after he drove the wrong-way on Interstate 275, critically injuring Mark Joseph Reale, whose van he hit.

The Seffner driver, Stephen Paleveda, 27, has been charged with DUI manslaughter. Bamnet Narongchai, 68, died when Paleveda's car collided with his.

"There is nothing more the Highway Patrol, the sheriff or police can do," Gaskins said. "People are making bad decisions."

That's not to say nothing is being done.

As part of a pilot project, the Florida Department of Transportation has installed wrong-way detection systems in Hillsborough and Pinellas County interchanges, including the ramps for downtown Tampa and Interstate 375 in downtown St. Petersburg.

FDOT spokeswoman Kris Carson says flashing signs at the ramps use radar detection to "trigger and notify the driver they are traveling in the wrong direction.''

At the same time, she said, an alert is sent to FDOT and law enforcement officials and a wrong-way warning is broadcast on electronic message boards stationed above interstate drivers.

An FDOT study that looked at crashes from February 2012 to January 2015 in Hillsborough County noted seven wrong-way incidents on the stretch of I-275 between Interstate 4 and Interstate 75, causing 12 deaths.

But since the pilot program began, not a single wrong-way crash has occurred on the same stretch.

The Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority is launching its own pilot program that will run from early 2019 through January 2020 and include hundreds of cars with special rearview mirrors.

If one of those cars drives the wrong way onto the expressway near downtown, a "Do Not Enter" sign will appear in the mirror, which will also sound an audio alarm, said program spokesman Jeff Brown. Other drivers with the mirrors will then receive a warning about that wrong-way car.

And in response to all the wrong-way driver crashes in 2014, the Highway Patrol has been using occasional "saturation periods" to augment its eight-person DUI patrol. Between 20 to 30 troopers from around the state converge on an area of Florida for a weekend to "eliminate impaired drivers," Gaskins said.

But the carnage continues.

In 2016, at least seven wrong-way crashes resulting in eight deaths occurred in the Tampa Bay area. There were two more in 2017, costing five lives. This year, there have been at least six such accidents, killing six people. Alcohol contributed to all but three of the crashes.

The accidents occurred on both interstate and local roads.

"We have taken hundreds of impaired drivers off the road in the last several years," Gaskins said. "If I had more manpower, it would be outstanding. I would love to have two to three DUI squads out."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com.

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