Authorities won't know for weeks whether the wrong-way driver killed Monday on a Tampa Bay interstate was impaired behind the wheel. But with 11 people killed locally in wrong-way accidents this year, it's time for police and highway agencies to look at tougher enforcement, road design, warning measures and other tools that could have a real chance of improving safety. A big focus needs to be on changing motorists' behavior.
Jessica Rey Mahn was driving a 2012 Nissan sedan north in the southbound lane of Interstate 75 about 4:30 a.m. when she struck a semi near the State Road 52 exit in Pasco County, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. The truck driver told authorities he saw the car going in the wrong direction, but it was too late. The death of the 25-year-old Tampa woman continues a spate of fatal wrong-way crashes on bay area interstates this year, including the deaths of 10 people along a short segment of I-275 north of downtown Tampa.
Though wrong-way accidents comprise only a small fraction of all highway crashes — about 3 percent — the contributing factors behind them are more likely to result in fatal or serious injuries. Motorists are often impaired and driving at a high speed on a dark and unfamiliar road. These crashes typically occur on weekends in the overnight hours. A report in 2012 by the National Transportation Safety Board found that more than 60 percent of wrong-way collisions were caused by drivers impaired by alcohol.
States have experimented with a range of design changes meant to prevent drivers from entering the wrong way onto interstates. Florida is looking to expand pilot projects along highways in the Miami and Tallahassee areas that use pavement markers, oversized signs and other countermeasures to warn motorists from entering the interstate from the exit lanes.
Flashing lights, warning signs lowered to rooftop levels and pavement markers can all help in getting a disoriented driver's attention. And digital technology could spot a wrong-way driver, instantly alert traffic control systems and send warnings to overhead highway message boards. States can also further restrict access to opposite-bound lanes to prevent motorists from making U-turns on the interstate. Florida needs to look aggressively for design solutions and track the impact to fine-tune these improvements on an ongoing basis.
But nothing will succeed more than a newfound commitment to personal responsibility. While fatal accidents have declined over the past decade, the number of fatal wrong-way collisions has remained largely unchanged, the federal safety board study found, with alcohol continuing to factor in one-third of all fatal highway accidents. Tougher enforcement of drunken driving laws, sustained public education campaigns and other measures — including peer pressure — that get drunken drivers off the road will keep tragedies from happening. The government and the public both have roles to play in making the streets safer. The recent heavy loss of life in the bay area should compel this region to act.