During 2017, nearly 1,200 Americans died in wrong-way crashes. The Insurance Information Institute also found that in that year, more than 5,500 U.S. residents died in crashes where a driver was under the influence of alcohol, drugs or medication.
Institute researchers did not report how many of those fatal collisions were caused by impaired drivers going the wrong way on highways or down one-way streets. Other analyses, however, have highlighted a strong link between drunk and drugged driving and wrong-way driving.
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The Scope of the Impaired Wrong-Way Driving Problem
For instance, a review of crash reports out Illinois for the years 2004 to 2009 revealed that “Approximately 58 percent of wrong-way drivers were driving under the influence (DUI). Of those, nearly 50 percent were confirmed to be impaired by alcohol, about 4 percent were impaired by drugs, and more than 3 percent had been drinking” at the time of the crash.
In 2012, in a special report titled simply Wrong-Way Driving, the National Transportation Safety Board wrote
A study in Virginia found the fatality rate for wrong-way collisions on controlled-access highways to be 27 times that of other types of accidents. The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) found a fatality rate 12 times greater compared to all other accidents on controlled-access highways. A study in Michigan found that 22 percent of wrong-way collisions were fatal, compared to 0.3 percent for all highway accidents in the same time frame.
The NTSB further noted that wrong-way collisions tend to be so deadly because a majority them are head-on collisions that occur at highway speeds. As to why drivers use exit ramps as on ramps, cross medians or stray left of center, the board offered this as one explanation: “With respect to alcohol involvement, data indicated that younger wrong-way drivers were much more likely to be alcohol-impaired than older wrong-way drivers. Sixty-five percent of 20-to 39-year-olds had a reported BAC of 0.08 or higher.”
Alcohol and Drug Use Make Drivers Deadly Threats
A 2016 Short Report issued by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration opens with the statement “Driving while impaired by alcohol or illicit drugs (e.g., marijuana, cocaine, hallucinogens, heroin) poses a significant threat to public safety. Substance use can impair perception, cognition, attention, balance, coordination, and other brain functions necessary for safe driving.”
The National Institute on Drug Abuse fills in a few details by explaining on its website that
The effects of specific drugs on driving skills differ depending on how they act in the brain. For example, marijuana can slow reaction time, impair judgment of time and distance, and decrease coordination. Drivers who have used cocaine or methamphetamine can be aggressive and reckless when driving. Certain kinds of prescription medicines, including benzodiazepines and opioids, can cause drowsiness, dizziness, and impair cognitive functioning (thinking and judgment). All of these effects can lead to vehicle crashes.
To understand why such effects of alcohol and drugs translate into wrong-way driving and collisions, recognize that signs, signals and barriers are necessary to prevent the problem. Since these are almost always in place, drivers assume the legal duty to spot and heed the warnings.
Drunk and drugged drivers are particularly prone to going the wrong way because they are especially prone to ignoring traffic signs and signals. Other people can only be assured of their safety when they can know that no one will be coming toward them, the wrong way, because of being drunk or high.