Has a friend, child or parent ever told you about the time they saw someone driving the wrong way down an off-ramp? Seeing a fast-approaching vehicle driving the wrong way can be a jarring experience — an experience that one will not soon forget. Not only is encountering a wrong-way driver unforgettable, it’s often a fatal situation. Between 2015 and 2018, there were 2,008 wrong-way driving deaths in the U.S. — an average of 500 per year, according to AAA.
As traffic safety experts, we’re committed to ensuring drivers stay safe on the road and helping mitigate preventable accidents. So how can you keep drivers in your community safe from this issue?
What is wrong-way driving?
Wrong-way driving occurs when a vehicle drives against the legal direction of traffic — also known as contraflow driving. And when this type of driving results in a crash, it’s typically a head-on collision. These collisions often occur on access ramps and divided highways, increasing the likelihood of serious injury and fatalities compared to other highway crash types.
The majority of wrong-way driving occurs on weekend evenings, when it’s harder to see. In fact, 78% of fatal collisions occur between dawn and dusk, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. AAA found that three of the biggest factors in these scenarios are alcohol impairment, older age and driving without a passenger. However, alcohol impairment is the most significant factor in this type of crash, with nearly 60% of crashes involving drivers under the influence of alcohol (NTSB).
How can you mitigate wrong-way driving?
Every town is designed differently. This means that depending on how your roads and highways are structured, your community’s roadways might have more vulnerabilities to wrong-way drivers. From a high number of divided highways to ambiguity in access ramp location, your traffic safety needs might differ depending on your community’s design. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution for wrong-way driving, these are some of the best proven countermeasures:
One of the most common countermeasures is a “Do Not Enter” or “Wrong-Way” sign. “Wrong-Way” signs were first introduced in 1935 for one-way traffic lanes, but their use quickly expanded following the 1956 construction of the Interstate Highway System.
These are the signs you might expect to see accompanying an access ramp or a one-way road and can even be double-posted or used together to increase effectiveness. To enhance visibility and catch the attention of potential wrong-way drivers, wrong-way signs can be equipped with LED lights, flashing beacons, reflectivity and even LED-illuminated legends. In problem areas such as access ramps, a second pair of signs can be placed further down the ramp.
The use of pavement markings like lane direction arrows and raised pavement markings is another method to deter wrong-way driving and is usually used as a supplemental countermeasure. These are most commonly implemented in known or suspected problem areas in addition to other countermeasures such as “Wrong-Way” signs and Intelligent Traffic Systems (ITS).
Lane direction arrows are commonly painted directly on access ramp roads to demonstrate the correct flow of traffic to encourage drivers to self-correct. Raised, illuminated pavement markings are often used at the mouth of access ramps, as they’re designed to only be visible to a vehicle driving in the wrong direction. In California, Caltrans saw a 44% reduction in wrong-way events when red retroreflective markers were utilized on access ramps in a pilot project.
Sometimes, wrong-way driving is so prevalent in problem areas that it requires modifications to the location infrastructure. Once it’s determined that the issue is with the infrastructure, the next step is redesign.
In areas where access ramp placement is ambiguous, channelizing islands might be used to help guide traffic in the correct direction. On undivided roadways, raised medians or longitudinal channelizing devices can be used to separate and distinguish the flow of traffic. And in areas where closely spaced access ramps create confusion, narrowing an exit ramp and widening entrance ramp throats help establish the correct point of entry. While this isn’t a comprehensive list of infrastructure solutions to mitigate wrong-way events, it’s an optimal starting place to identify your community needs.
Intelligent Traffic Systems
In recent years, the traffic industry has seen the emergence of technology that is improving roadway safety. Many communities have started to utilize ITS to mitigate wrong-way events. Solutions like TAPCO’s Wrong-Way Alert System are designed to detect when a vehicle begins driving the wrong-way and activate warning alerts, such as LED-enhanced wrong-way signs.
Additionally, innovations such as edge-lit LED enhancements and signs that feature LED-illuminated legends are being used more and more in tandem with ITS. These enhancements have been designed with low-visibility areas in mind to help improve sign legibility and catch the attention of drivers before they make a wrong turn.
When paired with a smart city platform, ITS can notify local authorities of wrong-way events. Real-time notifications of wrong-way drivers give transportation officials the ability to warn motorists of the driver via Dynamic Message Signs (DMS) and mitigate the risk of an accident.
Smart city platforms allow traffic officials to take quick action in the instance of a wrong-way event and continue to identify and improve problem areas — and just as importantly, have the ability to decrease the number of wrong-way stories you’ll hear from your loved ones.
TAPCO | Product Manager
Kate is a Wrong-way Alert and Overheight Warning System expert dedicated to providing customers with innovative products, knowledge and guidance.
She has extensive experience in engineering, operations and product management and is passionate about collaborating with the team to develop lifesaving solutions to ensure safe travel for all users.