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What Areas Have the Highest Risk of a Wrong Way Crash?

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One of the most frightening scenarios a driver can face is seeing the headlights of another vehicle coming straight toward them. Wrong-way collisions accounted for more than 400 deaths per year in the United States between 2015 and 2018, according to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Although a wrong way crash doesn’t always occur in intersections, the FHWA includes such accidents “under the umbrella of intersection safety because it originates with an improper maneuver at an intersection.” Cities with many one-way streets and a regular influx of unfamiliar drivers, such as San Francisco, are also at a higher risk of a wrong way accident.

According to a special investigative report on wrong-way driving issued by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in 2013, there were 1,566 fatal wrong-way crashes on divided highways in the United States between 2004 and 2009. This accounted for 2.85% of all fatal crashes on divided highways in that timeframe, and 0.71% of all fatal crashes on all roadways. In that same period, 2,139 fatalities occurred as a result of the 1,566 wrong-way crashes (a rate of nearly 1.37 fatalities per crash).

California’s Efforts to Reduce the Wrong Way Crash Rate

The NTSB has been researching wrong-way accidents for almost as long as the Interstate Highway System has been in existence. Since 1962, the state of California has implemented a number of measures to reduce wrong-way collisions, including evaluations of preventative devices like rumble strips, gates and spike barriers, and using hidden cameras to evaluate wrong-way entry on freeway exit ramps. An NTSB report investigating a 1968 wrong way accident in Baker, California supported further research into “remedial measures to avert or redirect wrong-way movements at expressways, freeways, and multilane divided highway ingress and egress points.”

In the early 1970s, California introduced low-mounted “Wrong Way” and “Do Not Enter” signs on the same post, and implemented better sign placement at decision points in an effort to further reduce the rate of wrong way crashes. The state also discontinued the use of signs that prohibited left or right turns using symbols only, opting instead for signs with clear wording, to provide more visible warnings to drivers. These measures were reported to have decreased the number of wrong-way driving incidents in 90% of problematic areas to just 2-6 per month (down from previous highs of 50-60 per month). Other signaling efforts by California include in-pavement warning lights for wrong-way vehicles on exit ramps.

Where to Watch for a Wrong Way Driver in San Francisco

San Francisco’s Lombard Street is a famous example of how extensive and dangerous one-way streets can be. With eight sharp turns carving down the Russian Hill neighborhood, this single block is known as the most crooked road in the USA. Although Lombard Street may be one of the recognizable, it’s just one of many one-way streets in the city, and turns by tourists or other unsuspecting drivers onto these streets carry a heightened risk of a wrong way crash in San Francisco.

Even Uber offers tips for its drivers on how to navigate San Francisco’s many one-way streets: “As you approach a one-way street that goes to the right, one effective way to avoid traffic is to move to the middle or left lane and then, move to the right or center lane when approaching a one-way street going to the left.”

Grant Avenue, the main street of San Francisco’s China Town (and one of its oldest) is also one-way. Between the authentic Chinese architecture and lantern-lined streets, it’s easy for tourists to become distracted and miss important signage, causing a wrong way accident. According to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), making wrong turn in the city can result in a fine of up to $1,000, or six-months in jail for obstructing traffic without a permit. 

Organizations such as Walk San Francisco (WSF) are advocates for increasing pedestrian safety among the city’s most dangerous areas. One of these intersection is the crossing between Golden Gate and Fillmore, which is part of the city’s “high-injury network” (also known as the HIN, areas that have been found to have a disproportionately high rate of serious accidents, such as a wrong way crash). One of the city’s most famous streets, Golden Gate is also one of the most dangerous, complete with three lanes of one-way traffic and low pedestrian visibility.

Traffic sign post with 'One Way' and 'Do Not Enter' signs, intended to prevent a wrong way crash

In San Francisco, there are 168 miles within the HIN, 50% of which had not yet had any plans for safety improvements as of the fall of 2020. Although these areas only cover 13% of the streets in the city, they also account for 75% of all traffic accidents in San Francisco. WSF also proposed ‘left turn calming’ posts on one-way streets, where drivers navigate past rubber posts as they turn onto a wide two-way street. The SFMTA began implementing this recommendation in certain areas in October of 2020, and launched a Safer Left Turns public awareness campaign for the changes at the beginning of the following year.

Who is at Fault in a Wrong Way Accident?

Generally, the motorist who was driving in the wrong direction is at fault and can be held liable for the injuries and damages suffered in a wrong-way accident. Municipalities or state governments may also be held partially liable if it is determined the roadways were not well-marked.

In California, driving on the wrong side of the road is a violation of Section 21651 of the California Vehicle Code. Usually, this is a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum of one year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. However, if the violation is willful and results in the injury or death of another person, it is considered a felony, and may result in more severe punishment.

Tips on How to Avoid a Head-on Collision

If you spot a driver headed the wrong way down a road, the American Automobile Association first and foremost recommends getting out of the way as quickly yet safely as possible. You should slow down and move as far to the right as possible without swerving off the road or into other lanes of traffic. Avoid hitting your brakes too hard if there are other vehicles behind you. You can also honk your horn, flash your headlights, and/or turn on your hazard lights to get the other driver’s attention. If you can safely pull over after avoiding a collision, call the police to report the situation. Provide a license plate number, vehicle description, location, and direction of travel if you can.

When encountering a wrong way driver on an undivided two-lane street, it’s important to not swerve left, as you’ll then become a hazard to oncoming traffic yourself. The other driver may also realize their mistake and try to get back in the correct lane as you’re swerving left to avoid them, further increasing the chances of a head-on collision between both cars.

Key tips to avoid head-on collisions include:

  • Slow down
  • Stay alert
  • Pass with care
  • Pay close attention to pavement markings
  • Don’t drink and drive

What to Do After Turning the Wrong Way on a One-Way Street

When drivers see the Wrong Way sign, it can throw them into a state of panic as they try to get out of the situation as quickly as possible. However, that instinct may put motorists in even more danger.

When turning the wrong way, it’s important to keep calm. According to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, one should pull over to the side of the road and stop when going past a “Wrong Way” or “Do Not Enter” sign. When there is a break in traffic and it is safe to do so, turn the car around and start heading in the right direction. The DMV also notes that drivers who are going the wrong way at night should see the road reflectors shine red in their headlights as a warning.

Contacting a Lawyer After a Wrong Way Crash

If you’ve been injured in a wrong way accident at no fault of your own, Avrek Law may be able to help. The consultation is free, and you’ll receive expert advice from a law firm with over $1 billion recovered in more than 10,000 cases across the states of California, Arizona, and Nevada. Contact us today – we want to hear more about your case!

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