Wrong-way crashes often caused by young, healthy, sober drivers

Data shows only 3% of wrong-way collisions occur on interstates, toll roads

CLERMONT, Fla. – Motorists driving north on U.S. 27 last month were horrified to see a white Ford Escape traveling the wrong way in the southbound traffic lane.

"Roll your window down," yelled Savanna Fox as she recorded video of the wrong-way driver with her cellphone.  "What are you doing?"

Police believe the 52-year-old man likely suffered from a medical episode that caused him to enter the highway in the wrong direction. When investigators later showed the driver the video of his car heading into oncoming traffic, he claimed to have no memory of it.

Despite his apparent health issue, the wrong-way driver arrived home safely without crashing into other vehicles or property.  Others have not been so fortunate.

In 2016, nearly 2,600 wrong-way crashes were reported statewide, according to data compiled by Florida's Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. At least 56 of those collisions were fatal.

Hundreds of other motorists who do not crash their vehicles receive citations for wrong-way driving each year, state records show. An unknown number of drivers may also begin driving in the wrong traffic lane before quickly realizing their error. 

A News 6 review of crash data from 2015 and 2016 shows that most wrong-way collisions were caused by younger drivers who appeared to be in good health and not under the influence of any substances.  

Most of the crashes occurred on surface streets rather than interstates and toll roads, often in clear weather.

Unlike the man involved in last month's wrong-way driving incident in Clermont, only 1 percent of crashes were caused by drivers suffering from a seizure, epilepsy, or a blackout, the data indicates.  Another 1 percent reported being ill.

About 4 percent of wrong-way collisions were caused by the driver falling asleep, data shows.  

In 14 percent of wrong-way crashes, law enforcement believed the driver may have been under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

A majority of wrong-way crashes appear to be caused by drivers with no obvious impairment. In nearly 65 percent of reports, law enforcement noted the driver's condition was normal.

Wrong-way drivers tend to be young, records show. About 25 percent of them were in their late teens and 20s, while only about 7 percent were older than 80. 

Hoping to reduce wrong-way crashes, the Central Florida Expressway Authority has installed a wrong way detection system on 35 toll road exit ramps.  

When a vehicle travels the wrong way up a ramp, flashing lights attempt to warn the driver of the error as sensors and cameras instantly alert dispatchers and Florida Highway Patrol supervisors.  

"Just several years ago, we had to wait for a crash or wait for the 911 call," said News 6 traffic safety expert Trooper Steve Montiero. "Now law enforcement can take proactive action rather than reacting to someone getting hurt."

Crash data indicates that a relatively small number of wrong-way collisions occur on toll roads and interstates.

Instead, nearly 75 percent of wrong-way collisions occur on state, county and local surface roads.

Another 13 percent of wrong-way crashes have been reported in parking lots of shopping centers, restaurants and other businesses.

Although rain or fog contributed to some wrong-way collisions, records show about 80 percent occurred in clear weather.

Montiero said the data confirms what he has always warned motorists: Anyone can be involved in a crash,  anywhere and at any time.

His advice to avoid being struck by a wrong-way driver?

"Always stay to the right, especially at night," Montiero said. "That wrong-way driver thinks they're on the right side of the road.  So they're going to be in that left lane coming right at you.  Stay to the right and hopefully we can prevent this from happening."

About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades.