Wrong-way drivers: What can be done to stop them?

In the past month there have been three reports of wrong-way drivers on local roads. Two were in the same area on Interstate 95 in Stonington and had fatal consequences for two men.

Law enforcement officials say, however, that wrong-way accidents are rare, and state Department of Transportation statistics show that they're not on the increase.

In 2007 the state had 86 wrong-way accidents. A year later, the number was 68. Numbers for 2009 are not yet available.

From 2006 to 2008 there were three wrong-way accidents on Interstate 95 from Old Saybrook to the Rhode Island border and one on Interstate 395 from East Lyme to Griswold.

In March 2009, a Connecticut College student was killed by an intoxicated wrong-way driver on Interstate 395 near the state police barracks in Montville.

While rare, the accidents raise the question of how drivers end up going the wrong way in the first place.

DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said all state on- and off-ramps have "Wrong Way" and "Do Not Enter" warning signs. The state meets and exceeds state and federal guidelines for signage on its highways, he added.

"It's quite extraordinary that motorists can somehow not determine that they are proceeding the wrong way," Nursick said. "Everything is signed appropriately."

Lt. Michael Darcy, commander of state police Troop E in Montville, said intoxication, fatigue and medical distress are potential causes.

When tragic accidents occur, like the one on March 25 in Stonington that killed two men, people often start clamoring for ways to prevent them from happening again.

In the March 25 incident, police said, Lance Lewis of Batavia, N.Y., was driving south in the northbound lanes of I-95 in the area of Exit 91. Lewis' car collided with a Lexus driven by Terrence Garbuzinski, 46, of North Attleboro, Mass., who was driving north. Both men were declared dead at the scene.

Nursick said he often hears people talking about installing spike strips, which would deflate the vehicle's tires, on the ramps to prevent a driver from proceeding in the wrong lane. But he said installing spikes is not feasible, noting the issue of maintenance and the fact that emergency personnel would not be able to gain access to a highway by driving up an on off-ramp.

More signs needed?

On Wednesday, Tammy Trautman of Westerly was cited for driving the wrong way after police said she got on the Exit 91 off-ramp and proceeded to drive south in the northbound lanes of Interstate 95. Police later said Trautman had a medical condition.

Stonington police Lt. Keith Beebe said he understands how a driver could become confused in that area because the highway off-ramp on Pequot Trail is "dead straight ahead of you."

Beebe said people often drive onto the ramp but turn around quickly because they either see the signs indicating they are going the wrong way or see cars driving in their direction.

"The signs are there," he said. "I don't know what else can be done."

Darcy, the Troop E commander, said he recently shared some observations and experiences about Exit 91 with a DOT official. He would not elaborate on what those observations were.

Nursick, however, said state police suggested adding more signs from different directional approaches in that area. But Nursick noted that there are at least six signs on the ramp: two "Do Not Enter" signs and four "Wrong Way" signs. He also said the ramp is painted with arrows.

"At some point, too many signs can also become a distraction," Nursick said. "The signs are very bold and recognizable. We can't make an infrastructure account for every form of driver error."

While there may not be much that can be done to prevent wrong-way driving, Darcy said motorists should be alert.

"One of the very best things the motoring public can do if they see someone driving in the wrong direction is to immediately report it to law enforcement," he said. "The law does provide an exemption for cell phone use while driving if it's an emergency."

Accident statistics:

2006

Total number of accidents statewide: 71,000*

Accidents caused by wrong-way drivers: 61

Accidents by wrong-way drivers on I-95 from Old Saybrook to the R.I. border: 2

Accidents by wrong-way drivers on I-395 from East Lyme to Griswold: 1

2007

Total number of accidents statewide: 113,000

Accidents caused by wrong-way drivers statewide: 86

Accidents by wrong-way drivers on I-95 from Old Saybrook to the R.I. border: 1

Accidents by wrong-way drivers on I-395 from East Lyme to Griswold: 0

2008

Total number of accidents statewide: 104,000

Accidents caused by wrong-way drivers statewide: 68

Accidents by wrong-way drivers on I-95 from Old Saybrook to the R.I. border: 0

Accidents by wrong-way drivers on I-395 from East Lyme to Griswold: 0

* 2006 figures do not include local road or property damage-only accidents

Source: Department of Transportation

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