Numerous factors are causing an increase in fatal wrong-way crashes In Arizona
Cathy Hocking has had a hauntingly lonely life since April 14th, 2017 when her two daughters, Kelsey and Karli, were killed in Phoenix by a wrong-way driver. Kelsey and Karli decided to drive late at night to see the sunrise at the Grand Canyon but their trip ended when 21-year-old Keaton Allison hit them head on in the Northbound lanes of Interstate 10 where all three of them died at the scene. The Maricopa County Examiner ran a blood test that determined the driver, Allison, had a blood-alcohol content of .25%, three times the legal limit.
Wrong-way drivers have become such a big problem that the state of Arizona has spent millions on thermal camera detection systems along Interstate 17. A study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety showed that the problem is only getting worse with a 65.8% increase in the average number of fatalities caused in the wrong-way accidents in Arizona between the time span of 2010-2014 and 2015-2018.
According to crash data that the Arizona Republic obtained from the Arizona Department of Transportation, wrong-way crashes were most likely to be fatal when both drugs and alcohol were factors. In one study, of the 262 total wrong-way collisions over half of those crashes and 44 of 72 deaths involved alcohol. Bart Graves, a DPS spokesperson, described wrong-way driving as a major problem that requires a community-wide solution.
Aldo Vasquez, an AAA spokesperson, told the Arizona Republic that the three biggest factors found in wrong-way crashes were alcohol, age, and whether there was a passenger with the driver. Vasquez said data showed that teenagers were the age group least likely to be wrong-way drivers and that driving alone increases the risk of being a wrong-way driver as the passenger can often alert the driver of their wrong doing, but alcohol was by far the largest factor.
“Being impaired was the most significant factor with about 6 in 10 of all wrong-way crashes involving somebody that was under the influence,” Vasquez said.
Sgt. Jimmy Chavez, a spokesperson of the Arizona Department for Public Safety, said the department has limited resources and can’t always immediately dispatch a trooper despite wrong-way drivers being high priority calls. Chavez said response times can be even longer outside the Valley, especially rural roads that aren’t monitored during early-morning hours. DPS has said for several years that it needs more funding to patrol the state’s highways properly.
Chavez recommends that if you see a wrong-way driver you first get to safety then call 911 and if you see an electronic sign warning to go to the right most lane because they are often in the left lane thinking they are in the right/ slowest lane.
People such as Cathy Hocking who have lost loved ones are looking for ways to prevent wrong-way drivers so that others don’t lose their loved ones too. One of these ideas is creating a law that mandates restaurants to ask who the designated driver is after a certain amount of alcohol has been purchased. Another solution that has been brought up is spike strips but this is considered ineffective due to the costly maintenance, not deflating tires quickly enough, and their design being created only for slow speeds.
One solution has already been implemented in hopes of preventing wrong-way drivers by using thermal cameras on Interstate 17 that detect and warn wrong-way drivers with flashing red lights. Since the system was installed in early 2018 it has detected over 90 wrong-way drivers and earned a National Roadway Safety Award in 2019. Vasquez has said increased signage, systems, and requiring ignition interlock devices for those convicted of driving under the influence has helped reduce wrong-way collisions.
There are hopes for more funding to be available to further safety advancements in other states.