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story.lead_photo.caption An ambulance is pulled onto a wrecker after it was struck head-on in a collision on Interstate 40 on Jan. 6. - Photo by Metropolitan Emergency Medical Services

Two wrong-way signs frame an off-ramp near where a 21-year-old Little Rock woman died in early January.

Red, reflective indicators designed to dissuade drivers from using the ramp to enter Interstate 40 dot the roadway, and arrows embedded in the ground warn drivers that they are going the wrong way.

Yet in the early morning of Jan. 6, Briana Carter entered I-40 traveling west in the eastbound lane, struck an ambulance and was killed.

The crash happened despite a concerted effort by state highway officials to reduce the number of wrong-way crashes. In 2018, the Arkansas Department of Transportation concluded a $3.1 million project to reduce such incidents, but wrong-way crashes continue to pose a deadly and unpredictable threat to drivers in the state.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, 300 to 400 people die each year in wrong-way crashes across the country, which is about 1 percent of all vehicular fatalities.

A wrong-way crash “is normally head-on and hard to avoid,” said Lt. Brad Lann, who works in the Arkansas State Police’s Highway Patrol Administration and has investigated multiple wrong-way crashes. “One person going 70. The other going 70. When two cars hit head-on at that rate of speed, it’s a very strong impact and can be very fatal.”

Despite more than 6,300 signs, 2,000 pavement markers and 800 ramp reflectors added on roadways in the state over the past two years, at least 10 people died in wrong-way crashes in 2018, according to preliminary data from Arkansas State Police crash reports.

Andy Brewer, the Transportation Department’s assistant division head of planning, said the onus to travel safely is on drivers, too.

“From an engineering standpoint, there’s only so much we can do,” Brewer said. “It’s also up to the driver to drive responsibly.”

WHERE TO BEGIN

In investigating wrong-way crashes, it can be difficult to determine where a driver entered a controlled-access highway going in the wrong direction, especially when the driver is killed, Brewer said.

Often, Lann said drivers will call 911 when they see someone going the wrong way, and those calls help investigators narrow down where the driver could have entered. In other cases, a driver crosses a median and tire tracks indicate where he drove into oncoming traffic.

In the crash that killed Carter, however, there are few options for where she entered the interstate.

A report from the Arkansas State Police says Carter’s 2011 Chevrolet Impala struck the ambulance at 5:17 a.m. near the 142 mile marker of I-40 east. It’s possible that Carter entered I-40 at the Morgan-Maumelle entrance at mile 142.

Carter would have driven more than 5 miles on the wrong side of the interstate if she entered at the next-closest ramp, which is in North Little Rock. Unless her vehicle was caught on a highway camera entering the interstate, investigators likely will never know for sure what road Carter took that led to her death.

While officials say it would be unusual for somebody to drive that far in the wrong direction without meeting oncoming traffic, it’s not unheard of.

In March 2017, a wrong-way driver traveled 13 miles in the wrong direction in Pulaski County before a trooper pulled her over and arrested her. No one was injured in that case.

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Arkansas wrong-way crashes

In September 2015, three people died and four were injured after a wrong-way driver traveled more than 5 miles going west in the eastbound lanes of Interstate 30 and Interstate 530.

As Pulaski County sheriff’s Deputy Andrew Holloway was crossing the Arkansas River on Sept. 13, 2015, he saw Joseph DeSalvo traveling in the wrong direction and tried to get DeSalvo’s attention with spotlights and emergency lights.

Holloway notified the state police, but before DeSalvo’s vehicle reached a row of spike strips laid to disable it, the Ford F-150, traveling about 80 mph, struck a car head-on.

DeSalvo, along with the driver and one passenger in the other vehicle, were killed.

In Carter’s wrong-way crash, the MEMS ambulance weighed between 5,000 and 6,300 pounds, not counting the medical equipment in the back. Carter’s Chevrolet Impala weighed 3,500 pounds.

The speed limit was 70 mph.

Two medics were injured when Carter’s vehicle struck the ambulance. One was treated at a hospital and released later that day. The other required surgery, according to previous reports.

Carter was pronounced dead at 5:55 a.m., according to an Arkansas State Police crash summary.

CRASHES THIS YEAR

Carter’s I-40 crash was the second wrong-way collision so far this year. Just two days after that Jan. 6 crash, 61-year-old Ronie Fenski was traveling east in U.S. 270’s westbound lanes when his vehicle collided head-on with another vehicle. Fenski was killed.

Over the past 10 years, the number of wrong-way crashes per year has risen as high as 21 and fallen as low as eight, with no clear pattern, according to highway department data.

Of the 13 wrong-way crashes cataloged in 2017’s highway department interstate and freeway crash study, five resulted in deaths. Though the 2018 report on fatal and nonfatal collisions hasn’t been completed, preliminary data from the state police show that there were eight fatal wrong-way crashes last year, seven of them on highways or interstates.

And the crashes are not dangerous only for people in the vehicles, Lann said.

“There are times that troopers have gotten hurt trying to stop these wrong-way vehicles,” Lann said. “It’s definitely a threat.”

A wrong-way crash in 2016 left one state trooper, Cpl. Roy Moomey, hospitalized for weeks after Moomey pulled his vehicle in front of a wrong-way driver, stopping that vehicle in the ensuing crash.

Moomey, who suffered a broken arm, leg, wrist, multiple broken ribs and collapsed lungs, was later named Trooper of the Year.

A law passed in 2009 requires the Department of Transportation to keep track of wrong-way crashes and compile a yearly report detailing where and when such crashes occur.

The two components that crop up in almost every wrong-way crash, Brewer said, are darkness and impairment.

Nine of 2017’s crashes happened after sunset. The report showed that in 2016, when there was a 10-year high of 21 wrong-way crashes, nearly half happened at night, and in 2015, 12 of the 15 wrong-way crashes occurred after dark.

In 2017 and 2016, drivers were impaired in at least half of all wrong-way crashes. In the 2015 wrong-way crash that killed three people, DeSalvo’s blood-alcohol content was 0.23 percent, nearly three times the level at which a driver is considered impaired.

That Carter was driving before sunrise is certain. Whether she was impaired has not yet been released.

TIME AND IMPAIRMENT

When the Highway Department began its wrong-way deterrence project, Brewer said traffic safety engineers took into account the times of day and impairment factors in such crashes.

Wrong-way signs, he said were placed closer to the ground to be in the line of sight of impaired drivers. Bright red reflectors and reflective pavement arrows warn a driver to stop at night.

“When we did that statewide project, we had that in mind,” Brewer said. “Impaired drivers have tunnel vision … and these are the kinds of little things we’re trying to do to get their attention better.”

Lann said that while the majority of wrong-way drivers are drug- or alcohol-impaired, he has also worked crashes where the person was diabetic and had low blood sugar or had dementia or other mental impairments that caused confusion.

In December 2015, wrong-way crashes were increasing. Eight collisions in 2014 grew to 15 in 2015. The next year they rose to 21.

Jessie Jones, division engineer for Transportation Planning and Policy, sent a memo in 2015 to the highway department’s deputy director, Emanuel Banks, recommending a statewide project to deter wrong-way drivers.

The project began in January 2017, and ended in March 2018, according to the 2017 crash report. Along with more “wrong way” and “do not enter” signs — both covered in reflective sheeting to make them visible at night — the project installed more stop and yield lanes, extended dividing lines between entry and exit lanes, and installed signs pointing which way traffic was flowing.

These measures are now considered standard for all ramp construction, according to the 2017 report.

TEXAS CRASHES HIGHEST

A 2014 national study of wrong-way drivers published by the Illinois Department of Transportation is listed on the Federal Highway Administration’s webpage as a guideline for highway departments seeking to reduce collisions.

The study ranked states on the frequency of wrong-way crashes. More than 14 percent of all wrong-way crashes in America happened in Texas — the highest percentage — whereas 1.4 percent happened in Arkansas.

Lowering signs was recommended in the study, as were increasing red reflectors and in-lane pavement arrows.

But no matter how many signs, reflectors and arrows are installed, Brewer said, drivers still make mistakes, still drive intoxicated or become ill while driving.

“We recognize this is also a driver behavior issue,” Brewer said. “It’s really on all of us, but driver responsibility is an important factor.”

Print Headline: State adds signs, reflectors, arrows on roadways, but wrong-way crashes continue

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