Driving the wrong way on the highway can be devastating. Crashes involving wrong-way drivers on the freeway are some of the most catastrophic due to their head-on nature and high speeds.
At a press conference Tuesday, Wisconsin State Patrol Lt. Nathan Clarke called wrong-way driving on the highway an “epidemic” throughout the state of Wisconsin.
"Wrong-way drivers typically when they crash cause horrific vehicle crashes out there resulting in fatalities, serious property damage, or personal injury events," says Clarke.
Last year, he says there were more than 500 incidents of wrong-way driving on highways statewide.
Wrong-way driving mainly involves impaired drivers, says the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department Inspector Brian Barkow. In the past three years, he says 56 wrong-way drivers have been stopped by the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office.
"Of those 56, 50 were impaired, either drugs and/or alcohol, which is 89%. The other 11% were confused drivers," he says.
This year alone, Barkow says 15 drivers have been stopped by the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department for driving the wrong way on the freeway system.
"All of them have been impaired, either under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The median blood alcohol content for those 15 individuals was .15, that’s almost two times the legal limit," he explains.
Barkow says most incidents occur between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m. He also says wrong-way driver incidents are twice as likely to happen on a weekend compared to a weekday.
Dan Dedrick, a safety engineer with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT), says the agency is going beyond state and federal standards for warning signs in Milwaukee County.
“We doubled up [on] do not enter signs, the wrong way signs at the ramp terminal at the bottom of the exit ramp. We also doubled up the wrong way signs father up the ramp,” he says.
Dedrick says the DOT is paying close attention to on-ramps and off-ramps right next to each other.
"It’s definitely an issue as far as when you have an exit and an entrance ramp side-by-side — it leads to some of the confusion," he says.
The DOT uses signs and pavement marking to eliminate the confusion, according to Dedrick. He says it’s also starting to look at further separating ramps during future construction.
Andy Bergholz, of Traffic & Parking Control Co. (TAPCO — a tech company based in Milwaukee County that’s collaborating with state agencies and law enforcement), says the goal is to prevent the wrong-way driving in the first place.
This can be as simple as additional red lights on signs that say "wrong way" or "do not enter."
"Through just putting in some of our LED enhanced signs, we’ve had independent studies that show a 38% reduction in the instances of wrong-way drivers," he says.
Bergholz says it’s important to allow law enforcement to intervene quickly. He says TAPCO created a wrong-way alert system that's now at 20 locations in Milwaukee County. The system uses a radar and camera to notify a control center of a wrong-way driver.
In addition, the DOT can immediately get messages on the electronic signs on highways – like the ones that tell you to "buckle up," to warn other drivers and hopefully the person driving the wrong way.
Bergholz envisions a future where dash cams notify drivers that they're going the wrong way down a road.