UHP develops innovative approach to reduce deadly wrong-way driver collisions

ST. GEORGE — The number of incidents involving wrong-way drivers is on the rise, both in Utah and across the country, prompting the Utah Highway Patrol to come up with an innovative approach to reduce the risk of errant drivers causing one of the deadliest types of crashes – a head-on collision.

Late Sunday night a crash was reported in Davis County shortly before midnight on U.S. Route 89 near Legacy Highway involving a wrong-way driver that was heading north in the southbound lanes. (See Ed. Note)

Passenger vehicle going the wrong-way on SR-89 was struck by a UHP trooper, Davis County, Utah, March 19, 2018 | Photo courtesy of the Utah Highway Patrol, St. George News

The car was finally stopped after a UHP Trooper struck the right side of the vehicle, causing the car to spin around until it stopped and sending the police vehicle into a cement barrier.

The 37-year-old driver was booked into the Davis County Jail on suspicion of DUI.  The trooper was transported to the hospital for a minor knee injury after the crash.

The Davis County crash was the third wrong-way driver crash investigated by UHP this year, and overall numbers for this type of incident are on the rise, UHP Lt. Todd Royce said.

Even though traffic-related deaths in the United States have declined over the past decade, the number of wrong-way crashes has remained relatively unchanged, claiming more than 380 lives across the country in 2014, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration.

Utah Highway Patrol vehicle struck cement median after stopping a wrong-way driver Sunday, Davis County, Utah, March 19, 2018 | Photo courtesy of the Utah Highway Patrol, St. George News

Royce said that, as an agency, the Utah Highway Patrol is trying to minimize the danger that these drivers pose to other motorists, officers and the drivers themselves.

“We understand that this is a big deal, and there is a great deal of danger involved with these types of incidents,” Royce said.

To address the significant hazard that wrong-way drivers present to the public and law enforcement, Royce said, UHP is now training troopers in a procedure developed by the agency for one purpose: “getting these wrong-way drivers stopped.”

The countermeasure is a two-prong approach designed to stop the wrong-way driver while at the same time reducing the number of vehicles heading into the path of danger.

How it works

Troopers respond to the area or location where a wrong-way driver is reported and then split off, with one trooper entering the interstate or highway traveling in the direction of traffic.

There, the trooper initiates a “traffic slowdown” by driving in a zigzag manner across all lanes of travel at reduced speed, which helps reduce the speed of the vehicles traveling behind.

This is designed to put as much distance between the wrong-way driver and the motorists that are unknowingly heading toward danger, Royce said.

At the same time, a second trooper gets ahead of the wrong-way driver before entering the same highway and then stops – either in the median or emergency lane – where they wait facing in the direction of the approaching driver.

Once the errant driver passes, the trooper flips around and follows the vehicle while getting into position directly behind the car.

The officer then initiates a precision immobilization technique, or PIT maneuver, a pursuit tactic used to force a fleeing car to abruptly turn sideways by hitting the rear bumper, causing the driver to lose control and stop.

Both techniques are illustrated in the video top of this report. 

The results are swift.

First, the danger of the wrong-way driver is eliminated because they are immobilized using the PIT maneuver; at the same time, the safety of unsuspecting motorists is enhanced by holding them back during the process using the slow-down technique.

Wrong-way driving and fatal crashes

The deadliness of incidents involving wrong-way drivers stems primarily from the severity of these types of collisions, which occur relatively infrequently, accounting for about 3 percent of all crashes on high-speed divided highways or interstates, according to a special investigative report released by the National Transportation Safety Board in 2012.

2018 File photo of a Maserati that is severely damaged after its driver hit an Isuzu head-on while driving the wrong way Saturday morning, Roy, Utah, Jan. 6, 2018 | Photo courtesy of the Utah Highway Patrol, St. George News

However, these crashes typically result in fatality or serious injury due to the fact that a vast majority of the crashes are head-on events that occur at high speeds.

Adding to the danger is that wrong-way drivers typically don’t stop on their own. Instead, the vehicle is stopped after it collides with something or is stopped by police, Royce said, noting that the two often occur simultaneously.

“Many times the driver is stopped only after the vehicle is purposefully struck by a trooper’s patrol vehicle in order to get the car stopped and prevent it from colliding head-on into another car,” he said.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board report, although they are relatively rare highway occurrences, wrong-way collisions tend to be severe events resulting in fatalities, and the number of fatalities, averaging over 300 per year, has remained essentially unchanged in recent years.

The report estimates the fatality rate for wrong-way crashes is between 12 and 27 times higher than it is for other types of accidents.

“We’ve seen an uptick in the number of wrong-way drivers over the last two years and not only in Utah but across the nation,” Royce said. “It’s a big problem.”

A factor consistently found with this type of traffic incident is intoxication.

A majority of reported wrong-way driving involves an individual “that is intoxicated, severely intoxicated,” Royce said.

This is substantiated by the 2012 report, which states:

Driving while impaired by alcohol is the primary cause of wrong-way driving collisions; more than 60 percent of wrong-way collisions are caused by drivers impaired by alcohol.

The new approach being implemented into UHP’s training program has drawn interest from law enforcement in other states as well, including Arizona.

The Utah Department of Public Safety is planning a demonstration of the program before the National Association of Chiefs of Police later this year.

Ed. Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to U.S. Route 89 as a state Route.

Email: cblowers@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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2 Comments

  • Loyal Opposition May 24, 2018 at 1:19 am

    I could tell without looking that Cody Blowers was not from Utah. Everybody has their own accent. Cody Blowers has her California writing accent. People from California don’t know how to refer to roads. In Utah, we have Interstates, like I-15. We have US Highways, like US 89 that pass through several states. We also have county roads. Interstate highways have the interstate marker surrounding the number like I-15. The US Highway numbers are noted on the road with the US Highway symbol. We also have State Routes that are numbered by the individual states and don’t leave the state boundaries like Utah SR 59 which goes from Hurricane, Utah to Hilldale, Utah where it ends at the Utah/Arizona border and then becomes Arizona SR 389. Utah State Routes can be identified by the State Route Number within the Beehive State Symbol. There are also county roads that are maintained by the individual counties which, if marked, only have a square marker around them. Californians don’t know the difference. While I learned about highways when I was 16 and passed my driver license, Californians seem to have failed that class. If you go to California, the traffic broadcasters will refer to all roads indiscriminately as “THE”, like THE 5 or THE 101 instead of Interstate 5 and US 101. Transplants from California, therefore, knowing no better, bring that nasty habit with them. You note that throughout this article, Cody Blowers refers to this highway as State Route 89 or SR-89, which does NOT exist. If you look at its highway signs, they have a United States Highway symbol around the 89 NOT a Beehive around the 89. At least Cody Blowers gave it a try and said State Route 89 instead of the more frequent THE 89 from California, but she missed it there, too. US 89 is a United States Highway number which passes through multiple states. It’s NOT State Route 89. Welcome to Utah, Cody Blowers, you need to learn how to refer to highway numbers if you’re going to be a reporter in our fair state.

    • Paul Dail Paul Dail May 24, 2018 at 10:34 am

      Thank you for bringing this to our attention. It has been changed from a state route to a U.S. route.

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