Can we prevent head-on highway collisions?
Six people have died in the past three weeks in head-on crashes on central Indiana’s divided highways. Can anything else be done to further prevent this usually catastrophic type of car accident? Perhaps we should follow Germany’s lead.
While driving home from St. Louis to Ann Arbor early Easter Sunday morning, my car, along with hundreds of others, was forced to stop because I-465 on the east side of Indianapolis was closed for an accident. While my friends and I waited for nearly three hours for the highway to reopen, we learned from a truck driver that the cause of the accident was a fatal head-on collision in which a southbound car had been traveling in our northbound lane.
(The photo above is from a different head-on collision, a non-highway incident with an estimated impact speed of 80 to 100 mph. Imagine if both cars were traveling toward each other at highway speeds of 60 or 70 or 80 mph … The other photos, courtesy of WISH-TV8, are from the latest Indianapolis crash.)
When we were finally allowed to continue north (at about 6:15 am), we passed the accident scene less than a mile down the road, where we saw an unrecognizable minivan that had been smashed to its B-pillars and obviously had been on fire for a long time. We also saw the wrong-way driver’s vehicle, a small red Honda that was obliterated ahead of its firewall and whose remnants were severely twisted. The bone-chilling scene got me wondering about the details of this particular accident.
After I read a few news items on the incident, including this one and this one and this one, I’ve learned that this was the third such fatal accident on mid-Indiana interstates in as many weeks, a sickening trend that goes even further.
Just Google head-on interstate collisions, and you’ll see what a problem this is elsewhere, too. In just a few minutes, I read about similar fatal incidents on March 31 in Alabama, a week earlier in Connecticut, and an early February incident in Colorado, not to mention one in Minneapolis two weeks ago that luckily only injured three people. Surely, there’ve been others, too.
Can anything be done to prevent such accidents?
Often, head-on collisions result when a car veers into an oncoming lane (as opposed to a wrong-way interstate situation), usually caused when a driver suffers a sudden medical condition (i.e. heart attack, stroke, seizure), falls asleep, or is intoxicated with drugs or alcohol. Because of the combined speed vectors, these wrecks are almost always more serious than when vehicles traveling in the same direction collide. And when a driver somehow gets onto the wrong side of the interstate, the higher-speed accidents can be much worse and are very often fatal.
The mother of the 26-year-old driver of the wrong-way car in Indianapolis reported that her daughter had a history of ulcers that caused dizziness and recently received a prescription for muscle relaxers. However, some alleged friends commented on the Indy Star’s Web site that the driver of this car frequently abused drugs and alcohol. Several people claim their cars passed the wrong-way driver when her car was going extremely fast and perfectly maintaining its position in the middle lane of the three-lane highway, almost as if she were on a kamikaze suicide mission. The wrong-way driver’s disturbing mySpace page doesn’t rule out this option.
Currently, it’s very difficult for police to safely handle a wrong-way driver on the interstate.
-So, should everyone who’s recently had any type of surgery not be allowed to drive?
-Should we take away the keys from those who have prescriptions for any medication that can affect their driving skills?
-What about elderly or disabled drivers?
-Should we put tire-flattening strips at one-mile intervals on every highway in the country? (Unless some new technology is developed, these teeth would eventually wear out and puncture right-way cars’ tires, too. Or, in cold climates, they’d get frozen up or down in the wintertime or get damaged by snowplows.) Perhaps such strips could be sensor triggered to spring into position.
-Should your car give you a blood test before it will turn on, checking you for alcohol, drugs, or other ailments? Should it also check to make sure you’re not depressed or angry?
-Should we station police cars at every highway junction in the country?
-Should police be ready 24/7 with helicopters to help corral such vehicles?
-Should we add more “wrong way” signs and install flashing lights that are triggered by a wrong-way vehicle?
-Is there some other way to battle this problem?
Obviously, none of these solutions provides a definitive answer. Each would cost countless taxpayer dollars. Highway engineers already make it pretty difficult for someone to accidentally go the wrong way, but something else needs to be done, somehow, to help reduce these instances.
Perhaps the best solution would be to follow Germany’s model:
Wrong-way drivers on the autobahn (“ghost drivers”) trigger a radio announcement that interrupts whatever you’re listening to, warning you of the situation and that car’s approximate location. That way, you can pull off onto the shoulder and keep a close eye out for someone coming from the opposite direction at well over 100 mph on your side of the road.
I myself have been passed by a car that was driving on the wrong side of the highway, and it scared the living shite out of me. Even if both cars are moving at only 55 mph, any collision would involve a shocking amount of energy. (On a side note, this is yet another reason to keep your car in the right-hand lanes whenever you’re not actively passing another car: You never know when someone might be going the wrong way, particularly at night when people are more likely to be extremely tired or intoxicated. At least if you both stay to the right, you’ll be less likely to get nailed.)
When John Candy did it in the film Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, it was hilarious. But in real life, the results are all too often fatal.
I’ll end my rant with a quote from the indystar.com forum, where Karen from Louisville, Kentucky, wrote:
So many recent “wrong way” interstate crashes. Sounds like copycat suicide. For anyone thinking of this “way out”- stop now! And if you really must leave – put down your keys and pick another form. Don’t take innocent people … with you!!!