Phoenix area hit with third fatal wrong-way crash

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By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

GILBERT, Ariz. (AP) -- Wrong-way drivers are reported on a nearly daily basis throughout Arizona, but most of them get off the road before ever driving into another vehicle, public safety officials said.

Yet in the past six days in the Phoenix area, seven people - including an off-duty police officer - have died after their vehicles were hit by a motorist going the wrong direction on an interstate highway. The latest occurred early Sunday when a pickup truck and a passenger vehicle collided. Two people were killed, and two others were seriously injured, authorities said.

The string of three fatal accidents in less than a week is a tragic coincidence that even law enforcement officers and investigators are struggling to deal with, Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman Raul Garcia said.

"This past week and a half has weighed heavy with everyone involved," Garcia said.

In the latest crash, a pickup truck and a passenger vehicle collided in the eastbound lanes of Loop 202 San Tan Freeway in Gilbert shortly before 2 a.m. Sunday, Garcia said.

A 911 caller reported the driver heading westbound around 1:35 a.m. Several more calls followed, Garcia said. Arizona Department of Public Safety units and police from Mesa and Gilbert were trying to intercept the truck before it crashed less than 15 minutes later.

The driver and passenger in the car going the correct direction died, authorities said. The truck's driver was seriously hurt, and a passenger had injuries that weren't life-threatening. Officials have not yet released the names of anyone involved.

Investigators are still trying to determine if driver impairment was a factor, Garcia said. Meanwhile, the Department of Public Safety closed the freeway in both directions for several hours.

On Friday, three people from Indonesia died and three passengers, including a 9-year-old child, suffered serious injuries after their minivan was struck by a wrong-way driver's car on Interstate 17 in Phoenix.

The driver of the wrong-way car, a Phoenix man in his 60s, was also injured. The man, who authorities said they suspect was impaired, will likely face reckless driving charges, authorities said. Any evidence of impairment could mean criminal manslaughter charges.

Early Monday morning, an off-duty Mesa police officer, Brandon Mendoza, 32, was killed on a freeway ramp in Tempe when his car collided head-on with an SUV driven by a Phoenix man, who was later determined to have been intoxicated. The wrong-way driver in that case, Raul Silva Corona, 42, had traveled 35 miles on three freeways from Scottsdale through Phoenix to Tempe before he was killed in the crash, authorities said.

Most wrong-way incidents usually take place in the late night or early morning hours, Garcia said. Staying off the roads during those hours is one way to decrease the chance of a wrong-way encounter, he said.

In 2012, the federal National Transportation Safety Board unanimously recommended that every state require convicted drunken drivers to use ignition interlock devices, which usually require drivers to blow into a tube to prove they are not intoxicated before they can start the engine. The agency was spurred by evidence that an average of 360 people a year are killed when drivers turn the wrong way into oncoming traffic on highways.

The distance between you and an oncoming driver closes rapidly, Garcia said. So staying in a center lane in order to steer evasively is one possible strategy to avoid a head-on crash. But ultimately, there are no guarantees.

"There is no cut way," Garcia said. "You can't tell people not to drive anymore. That's not realistic."


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For Immediate Release: May 18, 2014
Governor’s Office of Highway Safety
Wrong-Way Drivers Focus of Emergency Meeting of State Highway Safety Officials

PHOENIX – The directors of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the Arizona Department of Transportation and the Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, convened an emergency meeting Sunday afternoon to talk about the recent fatal wrong-way driver crashes on Arizona highways.

DPS Director Robert Halliday, ADOT Director John Halikowski and Governor’s Office of Highway Safety Director Alberto Gutier, along with their executive staff members, reviewed the three recent fatal wrong-way collisions and discussed strategies for reducing these types of crashes in the future. The group focused on the “3 E’s” of highway safety: enforcement, engineering and education.

Enforcement: The Highway Patrol’s top priority is to remove impaired drivers from Arizona roadways. With the support of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, local and county police agencies, we will continue to remove DUI drivers from our roadways in order to reduce the occurrence of serious injury and/or fatal crashes on Arizona roadways.

The Highway Patrol will remain vigilant in its mission to protect human life and property by enforcing DUI and all other traffic laws. Distracted drivers also create a danger on the roadway and the Highway Patrol has been using existing state laws to combat distracted driving.

“Our mission is to protect the lives of people who travel on state highways, I take that very seriously,” said Arizona Department of Public Safety Director Robert Halliday. “I am personally overseeing DPS’ participation with ADOT and the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety in a collaborative effort to protect motorists on state highways.”

Engineering: ADOT affirmed its commitment to study freeway on- and off-ramp configuration and continue research into strategies to detect, communicate and intercept wrong-way drivers. Already, ADOT has lowered “wrong way” signs on freeway exit ramps to be more at a driver’ eye level and, since 1995, has installed red reflectors in freeway lanes to warn wrong-way drivers.

“While there might not be an immediate engineering-based strategy ADOT can implement, we are committed to researching national practices for detecting wrong-way drivers, communicating that information to law enforcement and other motorists, and trying to send a message to the wrong-way driver,” said ADOT Director John Halikowski. “We will assess our current methods and strategies and see what can be improved, as we look for feasible innovative solutions.”

Education: The agencies urge all drivers to talk with others about how, as a defensive driver, they would handle an encounter with a wrong-way driver. Tips for motorists include driving in the center and right lanes, especially during overnight hours when wrong-way drivers are more likely to be encountered. Motorists should also be good witnesses, making quick 911 calls when a wrong-way or impaired driver is observed and providing dispatchers with good information on the vehicle, location and direction of travel to assist officers with a quick intercept. Motorists should “expect the unexpected” when on the road, not drive distracted and report all suspected impaired drivers immediately to law enforcement.

“The Governor’s Office of Highway Safety is committed to providing law enforcement with funding, equipment and training to deter and remove impaired drivers from our roads,” said Alberto Gutier, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety. “I will continue to support the Highway Patrol, cities, towns and sheriff’s departments in their efforts to prevent injuries and fatalities on Arizona roadways.”

The Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, DPS and ADOT are currently working on revisions to the Strategic Highway Safety Plan, which emphasizes strategies to reduce fatal and serious injury crashes. Those strategies will address factors often associated with wrong-way drivers.