Wrong-way driving may be more common than thought

A woman driving a Nissan on Interstate 75 on Monday was the 11th person killed in a wrong-way crash in Tampa Bay this year.
A woman driving a Nissan on Interstate 75 on Monday was the 11th person killed in a wrong-way crash in Tampa Bay this year.
Published Sept. 24, 2014

TAMPA — A string of wrong-way crashes that has claimed 11 lives this year on Tampa Bay's highways is troubling enough, yet records and research show wrong-way driving might be more common than people realize.

On Sunday morning alone, a Chamberlain High School teacher drove for nearly 12 miles without causing a crash until he was finally stopped and arrested. Another man was arrested in Clearwater for driving the wrong way, telling police he was unfamiliar with the roads.

The Florida Highway Patrol issued 114 wrong-way citations and made 22 warnings along highways in Pinellas, Polk, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando, Citrus and Sumter county highways since Jan. 1, 2010.

While those numbers average to about 30 a year, a study conducted by Haitham Al-Deek of the University of Central Florida suggests the number of wrong-way drivers who don't get ticketed could be even higher. The study found that only 10 percent of drivers who witness a wrong-way driver called police.

Although the patrol says that impairment is usually a factor in wrong-way driving — both motorists from Sunday face misdemeanor charges of driving drunk, for example — the penalty for simply going the wrong way is akin to a speeding ticket — ranging from $140 to $170.

"I'm concerned as a legislator and I'm concerned as a citizen in Tampa Bay that drives on these roadways," said Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa. "It's terrifying and it's tragic for these innocent motorists who are being killed by the individuals that end up driving the wrong way."

Young, who has discussed the spate of fatal wrong-way crashes with the Florida Department of Transportation, said she expects the topic to come up during the next legislative session.

"If we can solve the problem or come up with ways to intercept these drivers and not do it with legislation, that's certainly a more efficient way to do it," Young said. "But if DOT needs authorization, or we can come up with a better mousetrap, absolutely we'll do something."

Florida law defines wrong-way driving on a highway as "a noncriminal traffic infraction, punishable as a moving violation."

Young said that while she expected legislators to work with the DOT to come up with solutions, she was unsure whether that would include increasing the penalty for a wrong-way violation.

"Obviously, we could look at that, if it's determined that an increase in the penalty would help," Young said. "But honestly, I don't think that increasing the fine is going to do anything because these people are drunk and they aren't thinking about a fine."

Ed Narain, a Democrat who won central Tampa's District 61 primary, also said he doesn't think a more expensive ticket would lead to a decrease in wrong-way drivers. But he does think the Legislature needs to have serious conversations and help brainstorm solutions, even if that means increasing the budget.

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"I think we definitely have to partner with the local government to make sure whatever we can do to stop these crashes from happening happens," Narain said. "When it comes to public safety, I think the last thing we need to worry about is money or who is going to manage it. We just need to make it right and make it safe for everybody."

The transportation department said it will look into installing better signs and flashing lights to alert drivers traveling in the wrong direction. DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson said engineers are looking to expand pilot projects into the bay area.

"You could certainly think about legislative solutions, greater enforcement, greater penalties," said Kara Macek, communications director for the national Governors Highway Safety Association. "The model that's been shown to work (to address other highway safety concerns) is a combination of engineering, education and enforcement."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at or (813) 661-2443. Follow @cljohnst.