When it’s really late at night, traffic has vanished and you yearn to cruise the fast lane — don’t.
Wrong-way drivers, it turns out, think that’s the slow lane. And they often take it, just trying to be prudent.
Typically once or twice a year on metro Atlanta highways, according to state statistics, someone drunk or confused enters the road, barreling head-on into traffic, toward a fatal crash. But in the past month, it’s happened three times, a huge jump: twice on Ga. 400 and once on I-85.
Overall it’s not common. Just more than 1 percent of deadly crashes are wrong-way, according to experts. But they’re so shocking, they force persistent questions. What was that driver thinking? And what can be done?
By definition, wrong-way driving means a driver misunderstood or ignored the lanes and signs that traffic engineers laid out. Most of the time, that’s because something is wrong with the driver. Still experts say there are steps planners can take to reduce the chances of an impaired driver making that mistake.
It’s a mistake that carries a heavy toll.
On Aug. 24, Carlyn Royball drove north on southbound Ga. 400 and ended up slamming her Toyota Yaris into a Toyota4Runner about 3 a.m., according to Sandy Springs police. The driver of the 4Runner survived, but Royball died in the accident, which is still under investigation.
On Aug. 15 after 4:15 a.m., Frampere Ingle crashed into Eric Hanks while driving south on northbound Ga. 400 in Buckhead. Both died, and Ingle’s passenger went to Grady Memorial Hospital with severe pelvic injuries. The investigation is not complete but alcohol “may have been a factor,” according to Atlanta police.
Royball’s and Ingle’s crashes each occurred overnight. Royball was in the fast lane, and Ingle may have been too; her vehicle came to rest in the left lane shoulder.
Then just this week, a southbound pickup truck driver crashed into another pickup in the northbound lanes of I-85. That happened in broad daylight.
The majority of the time — but not always — the wrong-way driver is intoxicated and it’s late at night, said Scott Cooner, Program Manager of research and implementation programs at the Texas Transportation Institute.
“A lot of the time there won’t even be skid marks,” he said. “You’ve got two cars going probably 60-plus miles an hour. Just those forces, that’s why the cars are so mangled. That’s why it’s just a high probability of severe injury or death.”
Cooner studied every wrong-way crash in Texas over three years. He said national data is similar to Texas data.
A bad time, he said, is between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. The most likely place: “lane 1,” the far-left lane for drivers heading the correct direction.
Texas officials have come up with some solutions, he said. One thing they’ve noticed: Drunk drivers are more likely to look down than up. So while “do not enter” signs above eye level are important, Texas has taken to using special double-reflective pavement markers, sometimes laid out in arrow shapes. They light up red for drivers facing the wrong way. Georgia officials said they have used such marker in some cases.
Cooner has big hopes for technology. In a few years, cars might be stopped remotely if they are headed the wrong way. In the mean time, he said, perhaps the automated traffic signs that usually warn of traffic delays can be used to warn of wrong-way drivers up the road, if they are detected by traffic cameras.
One of the most effective solutions is more mundane, but also the most expensive – building exit lanes and barriers to channel traffic in a way that makes it nigh impossible to confuse an exit for an entrance.
That takes space, a luxury urban planners often don’t have.
Instead, one of the most vulnerable configurations can be found in cramped urban areas: an exit and entrance pushed together, right next to each other. This can happen in a “partial cloverleaf” interchange design.
In the 1970s, after Interstate highways were built, then-engineering graduate student Pete Scifres was asked to look into wrong-way crashes for the Indiana highway department. He found the partial cloverleaf design was one of many issues. It still is, Cooner said.
Ideally, a standard diamond interchange is clearer than partial cloverleafs, Scifres said. “But they build (the partial cloverleafs) for a reason,” he said. “Usually, there’s property they can’t acquire.”
The exits to Northridge Road from Ga. 400 have partial cloverleafs. That’s where a white Dodge Intrepid entered Ga. 400 via the exit lane around 2:20 a.m. on May 23, police said. It headed southbound in the northbound lanes and crashed head-on into a sweeper truck, whose driver lived to tell police where he saw the Intrepid come from. The Intrepid driver was flown to Grady.
One step governments can try is tracking statistics to map the locations where wrong-way drivers entered the highway and see where problem locations may exist.
But that takes time and resources that many do not dedicate. Even figuring out where the driver entered can be hard or impossible if road cameras didn’t record it and the driver is dead. Crashes are usually recorded by the location of the accident, not the location where the wrong-way driver entered the roadway.
Sandy Springs police said they still don’t know where Royball entered Ga. 400. With Ingle, witnesses told Atlanta police they thought she went through the Ga. 400 toll. But video didn’t show that, so they deduced she must have entered at Lenox.
Three fatal one-way crashes in one month is a lot. Between 2007 and 2011, major metro Atlanta highways saw 11 wrong-way fatal crashes: on I-75, I-85, I-285 and I-20, according to Georgia Department of Transportation spokesman Mark McKinnon.
Nationally, about 350 people a year die in such crashes, according to the Federal Highway Administration, a small portion of the nation’s 33,000 annual traffic deaths.
The Royball crash happened between Holcomb Bridge Road and Northridge Drive. Police and DOT say there is no evidence of any connection between the crashes and recent shoulder work there.
They don’t yet know the toxicology results of Royball’s autopsy, said police spokeswoman Sgt. Forrest Bohannon.
“We haven’t been able to develop any practical method or device to prevent drivers from getting on headed in the wrong direction,” said DOT spokesman David Spear. Spear said a Georgia DOT study in the 1990s showed that “we are talking about driver behavior issues virtually all the time,” drivers who are either chemically or emotionally impaired.
Cooner and Scifres said studies showed about two out of three wrong-way drivers are under the influence of drink or drugs. Others may be simply confused.
There may be relatively few such incidents, but they’re no less tragic, said Harris Blackwood, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.
“The No. 1 thing we keep telling people is, don’t drink and drive, make other arrangements,” Blackwood said.
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