They’re every freeway cop’s nightmare, the nemesis of traffic safety honchos, the killers often of anyone in their way.
Usually numbed by alcohol, drugs or fatigue, and maybe distracted by texting or a phone call, they enter freeways via exit ramps — typically well after dark — and drive blithely into the tide of oncoming traffic.
In metro Detroit, tipsters call 911 with 15 to 20 wrong-way drivers a month, although only four to six of those get a “confirmed” status from being seen on surveillance cameras. Of those, only a few end up crashing on metro-Detroit’s freeways — but usually with fatal results, say Michigan State Police.
The havoc that wrong-way drivers wreak has rung an alarm for highway engineers around the country, with aggressive prevention programs in Arizona, Rhode Island, Texas, and now in Michigan. Since July, the Michigan Department of Transportation has been installing better signs, as well as new lane guides stuck into pavement, and crews are modifying the paved approaches to exit ramps deemed dangerous.
The goal? To alert and try to block would-be crazies from doing the unthinkable – like two drivers did in metro Detroit last month:
- It was 4:15 a.m. in early December when freeway cameras in Detroit spotted a car going north on I-75 — mile after mile — in the southbound lanes. Inside was 27-year-old Tonya Berta from rural Ida, Mich. State police weren’t surprised to arrest Berta as a drunken driver. But what they didn’t expect? Berta had a year-old child in the backseat under a blanket; and both mom and child survived without a scratch.
- A few days later in mid-December, the outcome was morbidly different. Officers pulled up to a double fatality on I-275 in Canton. A young couple engaged to be married had died, while the alleged wrong-way driver — 59-year-old Wolverine Lake City Councilman Michael Stack — lived to face possible criminal charges.
The two incidents in December might seem like a trend, although statistics don’t show that wrong ways are escalating, either in Michigan or elsewhere. Still, because their errors so often result in fatalities, wrong-way drivers are getting fresh attention.
Nationwide, wrong-way drivers cause about 360 deaths a year, according to federal statistics. In Michigan from 2011 through 2016, eight motorists died in such crashes —“although we just had two in December,” said AAA Michigan traffic safety specialist Gary Bubar, referring to the Canton crash. In another Michigan wrong-way, a 65-year-old woman died when she drove the wrong way at 5 a.m. on a summer morning last year on northbound U.S.-131, striking a charter bus in Plainfield Township north of Grand Rapids.
In Michigan, the new emphasis is on freeways in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. The Michigan Department of Transportation is pouncing on every exit ramp that a wrong-way driver has used backwards, said Josh Carey, MDOT’s traffic safety engineer for the metro-Detroit region.
“This tends to happen a lot on older ramps, where you have the entrance and the exit right next to each other,” Carey said.
Several years ago, MDOT found the top spot in the state for this dunce-like behavior: the off ramps to Gratiot Avenue from I-94, where a succession of drunks had steered for years down exit ramps with disastrous results.
So MDOT installed the first of its exit ramp retro-designs, installing flexible reflector strips that stick up out of Gratiot Avenue’s pavement right where dizzy drivers were turning prematurely. Although no comparison statistics for the Gratiot ramps were available, the new design is a proven lifesaver, according to safety studies nationwide. So the state plans to modify other exit ramps in metro Detroit, adding the reflector strips but also upgrading the bright red signs that say “Wrong Way” on exit ramps.
“We’re adding more reflectivity to those signs and we’re lowering them because we found out, impaired drivers don’t see normally. They see things through sort of a cone," a narrow, lower view of the roadway ahead, Carey said.
Another step MDOT already has taken — ramping up communications with motorists and with the Michigan State Police, said Diane Cross, MDOT's spokeswoman for Detroit-area freeways. The goal is to post immediate warnings on the big electronic message boards that tower over freeways throughout metro Detroit, and also to get State Police troopers alerted in seconds to intercept wrong-way drivers, Cross said.
But stopping wrong-way drivers is a high-risk mission for police, said State Police First Lt. Mike Shaw.
“We have to drive the wrong way to stop these people,” Shaw said.
In 2011, San Antonio Police Officer Stephanie Brown, 27, died after being struck by drunken wrong-way driver, according to a report called “Wrong Way Driving: New Focus on a Persistent Problem,” compiled by the Federal Highway Administration in 2016.
The report has pages headed: “Lessons Learned — Michigan,” citing MDOT for demonstrating, among other findings here, that 60% of wrong-way entries to freeways occurred at the old-fashioned design for ramps called “partial cloverleafs” — exactly what is found at I-94 and Gratiot Avenue in Detroit. It’s that research that prompted MDOT to roll out ramp changes this year. And the State Police hope that means troopers won’t have to chase down many more scofflaws.
“We’d much rather see MDOT make these changes for preventing this behavior,” Shaw said.
Still, they are bound to be more of them. What can other drivers do? It might seem there’s no defense — not when the closing speed on a freeway of two vehicles about to crash head-on can exceed a combined 140 m.p.h. A wrong-way driver can fly around a bend on I-75 or the Lodge Freeway before the opposing driver can possibly change lanes. But the Michigan State Police have two recommendations:
First, because the vast majority of such crashes nationwide occur well after sundown, and many after midnight, motorists at those hours should get in the habit of looking “well down the road,” said Shaw.
“Be watching for headlights coming at you,” he said, not only in the big city but also in rural areas where the occasional drunk falls asleep, rumbles across a grassy median and then wakes up in opposing lanes and resumes driving.
Second, take note of what police know about the buzzed, high, fatigued or just befuddled drivers who commit this absurdly dangerous deed. Almost invariably, they cruise the wrong way in the far left lane "because they think it’s the far right lane, where they want to be,” Shaw said.
For that reason, especially in the wee hours of darkness, but really at any time, “stay the heck out of the left lane,” Shaw said.
Contact Bill Laitner: email@example.com