Driving is one of the most dangerous activities Americans engage in. According to the National Safety Council, car crashes caused 4.5 million serious injuries and 40,000 deaths in 2018 alone. Most accidents are a result of distracted driving, speeding, reckless driving and even rain. However, wrong-way driving is also a major concern.
Although wrong-way driving only accounts for around 1% of roadway accidents, injuries that result are notably more severe due to head-on collisions. Additionally, finding fault in wrong-way accidents can at times be more difficult than it seems.
Why and Where Do Wrong-Way Accidents Occur?
Wrong-way accidents occur when one driver travels on the wrong side of the road. These may occur when drivers drive up an exit ramp, cross over center lines and drive down one-way streets in the wrong direction.
A 2014 Texas Department of Transportation (TDOT) and Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) study found that most wrong-way drivers were likely to be either over the age of 70 or driving while impaired by alcohol. Some accidents were also caused by distracted driving.
A 2016 analysis of wrong-way driving accidents in Alabama found that these incidents resulted in around 24 more deaths per 100 fatal accidents than other types of fatal vehicle accidents. Specifically, wrong-way driving accidents are more likely to result in head-on collisions, which can heavily impact both vehicles and their passengers. The force of the impact is greater with head-on collisions, resulting in a greater risk of death and injury.
Most head-on collisions occur in rural areas of the country. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), head-on collisions make up 13% of rural vehicle accidents, as opposed to 7% of those in urban areas.
Who Pays for Damages After a Wrong-Way Accident?
As with all car accidents, the "at-fault" party is responsible for any damages resulting from a wrong-way driving accident. However, in some cases, determining who is at fault can be extremely difficult.
For example, if a wrong-way head-on collision occurs on a rural road, both vehicles may end up off the road, flipped, or in a position where each car's original location is hard to determine. It may be difficult for a responding police officer and an insurance company to determine who is at fault, especially if both drivers and their passengers were severely injured and unable to provide qualifying details.
If an at-fault driver can be determined, that driver's insurance will pay for the other driver’s damages. However, if an at-fault driver is carrying only the minimum required coverage, the insurance company may not cover everything. Head-on collisions can result in damages that cost more than the minimum property damage coverage required in most states; for instance, the minimum is just $10,000 in Arizona. The personal injury damage may also exceed the minimum requirements in most states, due to the significant risk of a severe or fatal injury.
Unfortunately for both drivers, if fault cannot be determined, insurance companies may assign equal fault to both drivers and only cover half the cost. Such a case may result in a lawsuit.
Following such an accident, the insurer will also likely raise premiums for the at-fault driver. This is a common practice, as the insurance company deems the at-fault driver as riskier to insure. Premiums won't decrease until the policyholder has shown responsible driving habits for several years.
What Are Governments Doing to Reduce Wrong-Way Accidents?
City and state governments around the U.S. have devised various ways to reduce wrong-way accidents. Larger, clearer road signs are one way governments have responded to such incidents. A 1971 study on wrong-way accidents, for example, highlighted bad exit ramp geometry as one reason why many wrong-way accidents occur. The report proposed various changes to ramp designs to help reduce wrong-way driving.
In more recent times, modern technology is also being used to help reduce wrong-way driving accidents. Arizona officials installed a $4 million thermal camera system on several highway ramps that can detect when a vehicle enters the ramp in the wrong direction. The cameras send an alert to the local department of transportation, which can then send an alert to the driver via a digital sign on the roadway.
Overall, wrong-way prevention measures can result in a significant reduction in this type of accident. The 2014 TDOT/FHWA study found that various wrong-way mitigation and prevention methods reduced wrong-way accidents by 38%. According to the study, some states, such as Ohio, introduced stronger penalties for wrong-way drivers as well.
However, drivers should not fully count on government intervention to prevent wrong-way driving. Better signage, digital technology and harsher fines will not completely eliminate wrong-way driving. Drivers should avoid the risky driving habits associated with wrong-way driving, and actively engage in safer driving habits.
Maxime Rieman is Product Manager at ValuePenguin. Educating and assisting shoppers about financial products has been Rieman's focus, which led her to joining ValuePenguin, a consumer research and advice company based in New York. Previously, she was product marketing director at CoverWallet and launched the personal insurance team at NerdWallet.
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