The dash cam footage is terrifying.

A Milwaukee County sheriff’s deputy is patrolling along northbound I-43 when the headlights of a wrong-way vehicle suddenly consume the field of view. The officer swerves just in time to avoid a devastating head-on collision.

The wrong-way driver traveled another six miles against oncoming freeway traffic before finally yielding to police.

In that case, during the early morning hours of December 13, 2013, no one was hurt or killed. But a year earlier, a wrong-way driver on I-94 critically injured an off-duty Milwaukee police officer. Another wrong-way accident on U.S. Highway 41 claimed three lives.

If it seems like there are more wrong-way drivers on the road, you’re right.wrong way driver crash

A Growing Concern

In 2013, there were 43 reports of wrong-way driving in Milwaukee County — up 26% from the previous year. And among the 15 wrong-way drivers that police were able to nab, all but one were intoxicated.

Operating while intoxicated is a common theme in wrong-way driving, both in Wisconsin and nationally. A 2012 analysis by the National Transportation Safety Board found that seven of ten wrong-way incidents involve alcohol, and 60% of wrong-way drivers had a blood-alcohol level above 0.15 percent.

Another commonality surrounding wrong-way drivers is death. While accidents caused by wrong-way drivers are relatively small in number, the chances of that accident being fatal are significantly higher. The physics of a head-on crash at freeway speeds are simply not conducive to human life.

The NTSB estimates nationwide, an average of 360 people die every year in wrong-way driving accidents.

Action Taken to Put a Stop to Wrong Way Driving

Although many states, including Wisconsin, have cracked down on drunken driving in recent years, policymakers and law enforcement officials are increasingly exploring infrastructure updates to deter wrong-way drivers.

In late 2012, the sheriff’s department and Wisconsin Department of Transportation installed motion detectors at nine Interstate ramps. Those motion detectors sense whether a vehicle is entering the freeway in the wrong direction and will immediately notify law enforcement and the state’s traffic operations center.

Two of those ramps — northbound I-43 at 6th and Kilbourn, and northbound Miller Park Way at Frederick Miller Way — also received lighted “wrong way” signs that blink during the nighttime hours.

Nonetheless, wrong-way driving incidents have continued to increase.

A Growing List of Proposed Solutions

In its latest report in early 2014, the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department identified several characteristics of the Interstate ramps most-commonly used by wrong-way drivers. The offending intersections frequently have parallel on- and off-ramps, lack physical barriers between lanes or suffer from poor signage.

The report goes on to make several recommendations:
• Flashing “wrong way” signs during nighttime hours.
• Lowering the height of “do not enter” and “wrong way” signs for better visibility.
• Mounting “do not enter” and “wrong way” signs on the same post.
• Installing reflective markings on the pavement to help channel the direction of travel.
• Building median barriers between parallel exit and entrance ramps.

There has yet to be action taken on these most recent recommendations but it is clear that the concern is growing and precautions are being looked into. We'll keep an eye on any progress and keep this area of the site updated on any movement on the topic.

Feel free to contact me if you have any more questions about this topic on your mind.

Trisha Festerling, J.D.

Family Law Attorney

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