1. Opinion

Editorial: Deadly danger of wrong-way driving

A wrong-way crash closed the northbound lanes of the Howard Frankland Bridge on Nov. 1. [Florida Highway Patrol]
A wrong-way crash closed the northbound lanes of the Howard Frankland Bridge on Nov. 1. [Florida Highway Patrol]
Published Nov. 12, 2018

Three crashes caused by impaired drivers going the wrong way on Tampa Bay highways have added to the region's grim toll from these senseless tragedies. While the Florida Department of Transportation is rightly ramping up efforts to reduce these collisions using technology to detect wrong-way drivers, the recent loss of life is a reminder of the perils of impaired driving in a region where the roadways are perpetually under construction and increasingly congested.

In the stretch of just two weeks this fall, a suspected drunk driver made a U-turn and drove the wrong way on the Howard Frankland bridge, dying when he crashed head-on into a van, critically injuring a St. Petersburg man. Days later, a similar collision on the bridge critically injured a woman. Then a suspected drunk driver going the wrong way on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway killed 68-year-old Bamnet Narongchai, a mechanic on his way home from a late shift.

Yet wrong-way driving — while it defies common sense — is actually quite common, a 2014 Tampa Bay Times analysis found. There were 70 incidents of drivers entering highways going the wrong way over the course of eight years in Tampa Bay, and nearly 700 wrong-way driving incidents on local roads in 2014, according to Florida Highway Patrol records. It's a problem that deserves the state's attention for changes to infrastructure that would help reduce the number of serious crashes due to wrong-way drivers.

The Department of Transportation first began to tackle the problem after a wrong-way driver killed himself and four University of South Florida fraternity members on Interstate 275 near campus in 2014, the first of six wrong-way collisions that year. After examining crash data, the department put up red flashing warning signs with radar detection at select ramps to deter wrong-way drivers. Once triggered, an alert is immediately sent to law enforcement officials, and a wrong-way driver alert is broadcast on the electronic message boards along the interstate, according to FDOT spokeswoman Kristen Carson. FDOT has also increased wrong-way signage, roadway reflectors and large painted pavement markings to help make direction of lanes and ramps even clearer. She said the data shows those measures may be working. Numbers dropped from 18 wrong-way driving crashes in the Tampa Bay area in 2016 to seven in 2017.

But the recent crashes on Howard Frankland bridge illuminate a different problem. Two wrong-way drivers recently made a U-turn in the middle of the bridge. That prompted FDOT to test new video analytics software with its cameras on the bridge to send alerts to the Traffic Management Center, dispatching troopers when there's a wrong-way driver.

These are worthwhile changes that can make Tampa Bay highways safer. But law enforcement officials are quick to point out that wrong-way driving is not an engineering issue. It's a drunk driving issue. In all but one of Tampa Bay's deadly wrong-way crashes in the last few years, the driver going the wrong way was impaired. With the availability of ride-sharing services and taxis, there's never an excuse for driving drunk — and texting while driving is just as dangerous. Only responsible driving will fix this problem. Meanwhile, FDOT's efforts are a step in the right direction to minimizing the damage wrong-way drivers cause.