116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Two months ago, according to investigators, a driver entered Interstate 380 from 29th Street NE in Cedar Rapids, heading south in the northbound lanes and crashing into a vehicle carrying four people — injuring three and killing one.
About month later, on April 10, another wrong-way driver was spotted about 4 a.m. heading north in the I-380 southbound lanes near U.S. Highway 30.
The Cedar Rapids Police Department said an officer on the interstate spotted the 2001 Nissan Altima when the car in front of the officer suddenly braked and veered to the side of the road to avoid a collision. That wrong-way driver, later identified as Malik Mitchell Preston, 23, of Cedar Rapids, was also believed to be driving under the influence, according to a criminal complaint.
Wrong-way driving likely happens far more often than people realize, said Willy Sorenson, a traffic and safety engineer with the Iowa Department of Transportation.
Most wrong-way driving incidents end in one of three ways: The driver realizes the mistake and self-corrects; police stop the wrong-way driver before a wreck can happen; or the wrong-way driver collides with another car, often head-on.
“I’d say something like 70 to 80 percent of wrong-way driving incidents don’t end in crashes,” said Sorensen, who noted that not all wrong-way incidents are reported. “And somewhere between 1 and 12 percent of wrong-way driving incidents end in crashes and approximately 2 percent of those crashes are fatal.”
Sorenson has studied wrong-way driving incidents for a decade, and has been drumming up funding for efforts to prevent it. And another project is just about to begin.
Over the next six months, the Iowa DOT will be revamping 95 interchanges across the state — including 14 interchanges in Cedar Rapids and three in Iowa City — that are considered at high risk for wrong-way driving incidents.
Of those, 75 interchanges are the typical ramp systems that can be seen along I-380 in Cedar Rapids. The other 20 are “at-grade intersections” that look like typical intersections except the driver is either crossing or turning onto a highway, like the U.S. Highway 30 intersection at 32nd Avenue near Atkins.
Each interchange will receive basic enhancements that include larger signage angled to specifically target drivers in turn lanes and new paint markings that include directional arrows and other warnings. The new signage and paint markings are expected to cost $794,525, which will come from federal highway safety improvement funds.
Additionally, 60 interchanges — including 10 in Cedar Rapids and one in Iowa City — will receive cameras that are able to identify and track wrong-way drivers as they enter a highway and can be programmed to send an email alert. For the time being, the cameras will be mainly used for data collection and research. The cameras, Sorenson said, cost about $1,400 per unit, which will come from road-use tax fund dollars set aside for safety improvements.
Among the intersections to be enhanced is at I-380 and 33rd Avenue SW. Police believe that in January 2018, radio executive Robert Norton Jr., 69, entered the interstate the wrong way from this intersection, driving southbound in the northbound lanes for more than 3 miles before colliding with oncoming cars — killing a hospital nurse and himself.
Authorities said that although Norton had alcohol in his system, it was not enough to have triggered a drunken-driving arrest if he had been stopped.
However, about 60 percent of drivers who get on a highway or interstate going the wrong way are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, Sorenson said.
Another 20 percent of wrong-way driving incidents can be attributed to elderly drivers. “Usually, it’s the folks that are above 70,” he said.
The final 20 percent of wrong-way drivers can be chalked up to confusion, distraction or drivers lacking adequate awareness of their surroundings, Sorenson said.
“Typically, we’re talking about someone who maybe missed or didn’t see the warning signs, or it could be that they were tired or distracted,” he said.
There is a fourth type of wrong-way driver, Sorenson said, but it is not often talked about and is seldom reported accurately: The wrong-way driver who does so intentionally.
“It’s sad, and nobody wants to talk about it, but it is real,” he said, adding that few intentional crashes are classified as suicides unless investigators find undeniable evidence.
Some steps are in place now to mitigate the impact of wrong-way driving. For example, the Iowa DOT can use electronic message boards to warn drivers that a wrong-way driver is coming their way.
In such an event, Sorenson said, the best thing a right-way driver can do is pull over to the right shoulder and wait for the wrong-way driver to pass.
“In most cases when a wrong-way driving incident ends in a crash, it’s because there was a (right-way) vehicle in the left lane of the highway,” Sorenson said.
Sorenson believes most wrong-way drivers — with the exception of those intoxicated — are attempting to drive safety but are unaware they are going the wrong way.
“It’s hard to explain, but in a typical wrong-way driving incident, both drivers — the wrong-way driver and the right-way driver — believe they are driving in the right lane,” he said. “So, if you’re driving the correct direction on a highway and you’re driving in the right-side lane, that will most likely save your life in a wrong-way driving incident. And that’s because the wrong-way driver will most often be traveling in the left-side lane and thinking he is in the right-side lane and heading in the correct direction.”
The interchange revamp project will likely take until Thanksgiving to complete, Sorenson said. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“There are roughly 460 interchanges in Iowa, and I don’t know how many at-grade intersections we have,” he said. “And with each one, there is some potential — even if it’s very slight — that a driver could get on the highway going the wrong way. So we are really just scratching the surface when it comes to the research, and when it comes to developing systems to prevent wrong-way driving incidents from happening at all.”
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