Fatal wrong-way driving crashes are a persistent and devastating threat that has grown significantly worse in Wisconsin.
The average number of deaths from wrong-way crashes on divided highways rose 230% in the state from 2015 to 2018, compared with a preceding five-year span, according to recent data analysis from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, That’s the third largest increase in the United States and is more than six times greater than the nationwide increase of 32%.
Researchers found that the odds of being a wrong-way driver increased with alcohol-impairment, older age and driving without a passenger.
“Wrong-way crashes on divided highways are often fatal as they are typically head-on collisions,” said Dr. David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “Unfortunately, as the data shows, fatalities from these crashes are on the rise.”
Wrong-way crashes in the area continue to have deadly consequences.
Last April, a wrong-way driver caused a deadly crash on Interstate-94 in Waukesha County. A car traveling westbound in the eastbound lanes crashed into another vehicle driven by a 24-year-old woman, who died as a result of the collision.
A head-on crash on Interstate 43 south of Chase Avenue in June resulted in the deaths of a passenger in each of the vehicles involved. The driver of the wrong-way vehicle was charged with two counts of first-degree reckless homicide, one count of reckless injury and two counts of driving while his license was suspended, causing death.
A crash in January caused by a wrong-way driver on Interstate 94 near Lake Mills in Jefferson County killed the drivers of both vehicles.
Nationally, six in ten wrong-way crashes involved an alcohol-impaired driver. Those with blood alcohol concentrations over the legal limit of 0.08 were significantly more likely to be wrong-way drivers than non-alcohol-impaired drivers involved in the same type of crashes.
The data also shows that drivers over age 70 are more at risk of wrong-way driving than their younger counterparts. Previous research from the AAA Longitudinal Research on Aging Drivers project found that drivers age 75 to 79 spent less time on the road and drove fewer miles per trip than younger age groups but are over-represented in wrong-way crashes.
The presence of a passenger may offer some protection as nearly 87% of wrong-way drivers were alone. Passengers may alert drivers that they are entering a one-way road, prevent them from entering the highway in the wrong direction, or alert them to an error, helping the driver take corrective action before a crash occurs.
“If you see a wrong-way driver, cautiously move to the right shoulder but avoid swerving or slamming on the brakes” said Nick Jarmusz, director of public affairs for AAA – The Auto Club Group. “As soon as you are safely out of harm’s way, call 911 to report the situation.”
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety report follows a recent study by the Wisconsin Policy Forum that showed that Wisconsin recorded a significant increase in fatal car crashes and crash fatalities during the initial months of the coronavirus pandemic. The uptick was fueled, in part, by increases of 50% or more in crash fatalities involving reckless driving behaviors such as alcohol consumption and speeding.
This troubling increase occurred even though studies showed that motorists in Wisconsin drove less during the early months of the pandemic.
The problem was especially disturbing in Milwaukee County.
The Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s office investigated 107 traffic fatalities in 2020, the highest total ever recorded in Milwaukee County and up considerably from the 74 auto fatalities in 2019.
“A key question is whether the trends that began in March 2020 represent a brief blip or a sustained increase that demands a response by policymakers,” the Wisconsin Policy Forum report concludes.
“Law enforcement and transportation agencies have longstanding experience in addressing many of these issues. Whether they are able to prioritize them given their tight budgets and many pandemic-related demands may be determined in the coming months as we work to restore our state to a pre-pandemic trajectory of safer roads.”
This week, the city of Milwaukee announced that it will be distributing a total of $102,000 to 18 community groups to address reckless driving.
The grants aim to decrease the number of traffic crashes by creating safer streets, fostering community involvement and building awareness around the dangers and effects of reckless driving.
The grant funds are being administered by the Milwaukee Department of Public Works.
Awards will go toward a variety of programs, events and campaigns. Projects range from physical marketing and social media campaigns, as well as music videos, murals and community walks and events.
The projects are anticipated to be implemented in summer and fall of 2021.
“I am hopeful that the implementation of these public information campaigns, along with engineering changes being made to our streets and the Milwaukee Police Department’s newly formed Traffic Safety Unit, there will be a noticeable decline in reckless driving throughout our city,” said Milwaukee Alderman Michael Murphy, chairman of the City-County Carjacking and Reckless Driving Task Force.