Wisconsin has to hit the brakes during wrong-way driving and crashes

It’s terrifying to think: you’re driving down the road and suddenly another vehicle comes towards you at high speed in your lane. Maybe you have seconds to dodge, or maybe it’s already too late.

Wrong-way crashes are killing innocent people in Wisconsin with surprising frequency. Our state has the highest number of wrong-way driving fatalities in the country, and simple things aren’t being done to prevent it, like more noticeable flashing light signs on confusing highway ramps.

Wisconsin leads the nation in fatal crashes involving wrong-way drivers.

Wrong-way driving crashes killed 484 people in Wisconsin over a decade, accounting for nearly 1 in 10 of all fatal crashes and more than twice the national average, according to “Headed the Wrong Way,” a powerful series from State Journal reporter David Wahlberg and photographer and videographer Amber Arnold.

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Drunk drivers cause most of these accidents. They need to sober up and face harsher restrictions and punishments – before they kill someone. They also need treatment for alcohol abuse and strict testing if they want to drive again.

Far too many Wisconsin families have lost loved ones to these horrific head-on collisions.

Paulina González and stepfather Kurt Schilling lost four children — Daniel, 25, Fabian, 23, Lilian, 14, and Daniela, 9 — in December when a pickup driver and repeat drunk driver drove the wrong way on Highway 10 near Weyauwega and into the highway crashed. family SUV.

Kristin and David Peterson lost their son Grant, 20, a year earlier in a car accident on Interstate 90-94 near Wisconsin Dells. The driver of a pickup truck with a blood alcohol level twice the legal limit was traveling westbound in the eastbound lanes and struck the vehicle Grant was driving near the exit for Mt. Olympus Resort.

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That could have been any of us standing in the path of that approaching wheeled wrecking ball.

Wisconsin’s scourge of drunk driving is largely responsible for wrong-way crashes. The legislature has still not increased the penalty for a first offense of operating under the influence. Instead of a traffic fine, first-time drunk drivers should be charged with a misdemeanor. Wisconsin is the only state that has gone so soft.

The Legislature still has not required first-time offenders to spend a night in jail.

The Legislature still hasn’t forced everyone convicted of drunk driving to install ignition interlock devices on their vehicles. The devices prevent a vehicle from starting without a clean breath test.

As Headed the Wrong Way reports, ignition interlocks in Wisconsin prevented drunk people from starting their cars 357,946 times between 2006 and 2020. That was second only to the much larger state of Texas.

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Yet many first-time offenders do not need to breathe into a tube before starting their car. And for those drivers forced to install ignition interlock devices, repeated attempts to drive while impaired should extend the time the devices must remain installed.

Wisconsin does not allow sobriety tests, like most states. Nor has the country joined a national pact to treat violations outside the state as if they occurred here.

An employee of Traffic and Parking Control Co., or TAPCO, in Brown Deer talks about technology to prevent wrong-way driving.

Yet part of the blame for wrong-way crashes lies with traffic engineers. Poorly designed ramps have left even sober drivers confused as they enter ramps leading to major highways. In too many cases, the entrances and exits are next to each other, which can fool people, especially at night.

Simply improving and enlarging “wrong” signs will help save lives.

Lawmakers and government officials in transportation must respond to the findings of “Going in the Wrong Direction” with serious investment. Wrong driving is no coincidence. It is becoming more common and requires more attention and technology to deter.

Iowa reduced wrong-way driving incidents by 94% at confusing intersections with better and more strategically placed signs, Wahlberg reported.

“Everyone should be doing this,” said an Iowa traffic safety engineer.

“Everyone” should include Wisconsin.

A Brown Deer company near Milwaukee is making a promising warning system to detect a driver going the wrong way on a highway. Wisconsin began using the technology in Milwaukee County in 2012 and 2016, but has not expanded or evaluated the systems’ effectiveness.

Like Wisconsin, Florida has many older people and tourists who become disoriented more easily. Florida has installed improved signs and pavement markings on almost all highways. Arizona uses thermal cameras to detect drivers going the wrong way and warn authorities and other drivers of the danger.

Just a few million dollars can go a long way in the right direction.

State leaders must put the brakes on wrong-way driving and reverse this dangerous trend.

The newest member of the community to join the Wisconsin State Journal Editorial Board introduces himself

The newest addition to the Wisconsin State Journal editorial staff introduces himself