North Carolina Headed the Wrong Way with Wrong-Way Driving

by Gwen Newell
|how much time do americans spend driving

Fatal wrong-way crashes on our nation’s highways are a persistent and devastating threat that is only getting worse. According to the latest data analysis from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, there were 28 deaths in North Carolina from wrong-way driving crashes on divided highways between 2015 and 2018, an average of approximately 7 deaths a year. That is up 75% from the 4 deaths annually from 2010 to 2014. Researchers found that the odds of being a wrong-way driver increased with alcohol-impairment, older age, and driving without a passenger.

Researchers examined eight factors related to these types of crashes, and three stood out – alcohol-impairment, older age, and driving without a passenger. Six in ten wrong-way crashes involved an alcohol-impaired driver. Those with blood alcohol concentrations over the legal limit of 0.08 g/dl (grams per deciliter) were significantly more likely to be wrong-way drivers than non-alcohol-impaired drivers involved in the same crashes.

According to NCDOT, there were 164 deaths from 2000 to 2017 due to wrong-way crashes – and alcohol and/or drugs were involved in nearly half of all of these crashes. Of the 129 wrong-way crashes from 2000 to 2013, 68 of them involved alcohol.

Alcohol impairment is, by far, the single most significant factor in the majority of wrong-way driving crashes, which has not changed since the NTSB issued its Wrong-Way Driving special investigation report in 2012. Interventions like ignition interlock devices for all offenders and high-visibility enforcement operations will reduce these types of crashes.

An alcohol ignition interlock device prevents a vehicle from starting until the driver provides a breath sample that registers below a pre-set low limit, usually around a BAC of 0.02. It is the best countermeasure to separate drinking from driving.

The data also shows that drivers over age 70 are more at risk of wrong-way driving than their younger counterparts. Previous Foundation research from the AAA Longitudinal Research on Aging Drivers project found that older drivers aged 75-79 spent less time on the road and drove fewer miles per trip than younger age groups. And yet, this same age group is over-represented in wrong-way crashes.

A passenger’s presence may offer some protection against being a wrong-way driver, as nearly 87% of wrong-way drivers were alone. Passengers may alert drivers that they are entering a one-way road, preventing them from entering the highway in the wrong direction, or alerting them to their error, helping the driver take corrective action before a crash occurs.

AAA and the NTSB remind drivers to use common sense before getting behind the wheel.

  • If you are driving, don’t drink. If you are drinking, don’t drive. If you consume marijuana or alcohol or use potentially impairing prescription medications, then don’t drive. And if you’re going to drive, then don’t consume these substances.
  • Stay alert. Stop driving if you become sleepy because you could fall asleep at any time. Fatigue impacts reaction time and judgment, causing people who are very tired to behave in similar ways to those who are drunk.

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