This brief explores fatal wrong-way crashes and factors associated with these incidents.
Between 2004 and 2009, an average of 360 fatalities resulted from wrong-way driving crashes annually in the United States. Although relatively rare, wrong-way crashes are often severe and fatal as they are typically head-on collisions.
This brief quantifies the number of fatal wrong-way crashes and the number of people killed in these incidents from 2010–2018 using data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). Characteristics of wrong-way drivers were compared with those of “right-way” drivers in the same crashes to identify factors associated with increased odds of being a wrong-way driver.
Data on all fatal motor vehicle crashes that occurred on divided highways in the U.S. between 2010 and 2018 were used to count the number of fatal crashes involving wrong-way drivers and the number of deaths resulting from these crashes. In order identify factors associated with being a wrong-way driver, characteristics of drivers traveling the wrong way were compared with drivers involved in the same crashes who were traveling in the correct direction.
Results show that between 2010 and 2018 there were 2,921 fatal wrong-way crashes resulting in 3,885 deaths—an average of 430 deaths per year. Over half of these deaths were wrong-way drivers (52.8%), a small percentage were their passengers (5.7%), while about four in ten (41.1%) were occupants of other vehicles.
As blood alcohol concentration (BAC) increases, so does the odds of being a wrong-way driver. Compared to drivers with BACs less than 0.01 g/dL, drivers with BACs between 0.01 and 0.049 g/dL had an odds ratio (OR) of 2.65, while those with BACs greater than or equal to 0.08 g/dL had an OR of 18.36.
Compared to licensed drivers, those without a license and drivers whose licenses were either suspended, revoked, or expired were more likely to be wrong-way drivers. Compared to those with newer model vehicles (0 to 5 years old), drivers with models between 6 and 10 years old were more likely to be wrong-way drivers, and the odds increase the older their vehicles are. In addition, compared to drivers of passenger vehicles, drivers of buses and large trucks are less likely to be wrong-way drivers. Drivers with passengers are also less likely to be wrong-way drivers.
Being an older driver is also a strong predictor for being a wrong-way driver in a fatal wrong-way crash. The odds of being a wrong-way driver dramatically increases after the age of 70 years.