Solutions elusive for stopping wrong-way drivers

An April 22 collision resulted in the death of a wrong-way driver, a woman in a Toyota Prius, and three men in a Ford pickup.
An April 22 collision resulted in the death of a wrong-way driver, a woman in a Toyota Prius, and three men in a Ford pickup. rpench@sacbee.com

If ever there were a Memorial Day weekend for defensive driving, surely this is it.

In less than six months, at least 14 have died on Sacramento-area freeways in wrong-way collisions; the death toll could grow if a wrong-way driver turns out to have caused Monday’s crash on Highway 50, as suspected.

About half of all the wrong-way fatalities so far this year on California freeways have been in a single California Highway Patrol division – the one around Sacramento. And though such accidents are extremely rare, the recent succession has been so horrific that, naturally, the impulse has been to look for a cause and to do something.

Could local offramps be retrofitted with better safety equipment? Would more flashing lights make a difference? How about parking lot spikes? Or more sensors and signs?

Caltrans is on the case, at the behest of Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez, D-Pomona, who has sponsored a bill aimed at making it harder for these kinds of accidents to happen.

We can’t blame him. Maybe lights and signs would prevent these forays up the wrong ends of offramps. Maybe there’s an invention, as yet unknown, that would head off these head-on collisions.

But infrastructure fixes are costly – the Sacramento area alone has hundreds of offramps. And the focus on technical fixes obscures the one factor nearly all of these awful incidents have in common.

So far, both of the recent crashes in which toxicological reports have been completed were caused by profoundly drunken drivers. Of two more awaiting toxicology information, at least one of the wrong-way drivers had a history of DUIs.

CHP investigations show most wrong-way freeway crashes involve drunken drivers.

Wrong-way crashes, authorities say, almost always stem from drinking and driving. And the CHP division around Sacramento led the state in fatal DUI collisions in 2013, the last full year for which statistics are available.

Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial launch of summer. People celebrate. Often, they celebrate too much. That’s why this also is a peak time for heartbreak, and for every motorist to do his or her part.

So this weekend, hire a designated driver. Download a rideshare app. Call a cab.

Hide your friends’ car keys if they’ve been drinking. Teach your children the joys of public transit.

If you hit the freeways, stay out of the lane that wrong-way drivers like best – the fast lane. And remember, this Memorial Day, how many tears lie behind each statistic.

We may not be able to legislate fixes for every wrong turn that harms us, but we all know the laws on drinking and driving: Don’t do it, and don’t let your loved ones do it, either. Be safe. Do right.