The problem of wrong-way drivers has reached some prominence lately, with two fatal head-on collisions in two months on Highway 101.
Both the California Highway Patrol and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department refrain from driving the wrong way on the highway when dealing with such instances, but have set protocol for when they happen.
And they do happen.
There have been three prominent incidences in the Santa Barbara area in two months — the two head-on collisions and one car that drove into a ditch — but CHP statistics report hundreds of fatalities and thousands of injuries each year caused by driving on the wrong side of the road.
In 2007, the most recent data available, there were 241 fatal collisions for which driving on the wrong side of the road was the primary collision factor (causing the collision). There were 5,980 injury collisions, according to the Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System.
These numbers are in sync with previous years, when the numbers have been between 236 and 268 fatal collisions and 5,980 to 7,001 injury collisions.
For comparison, the number of fatal and injury collisions in which driving or bicycling under the influence of alcohol or drugs was 786 and 15,481, respectively, in 2007.
When a CHP officer sees a wrong-way driver, or gets the report, he or she radios to other units farther up the highway, Officer A. Kansupda said.
All assisting agencies — including police and sheriff’s deputies — also are notified, and authorities try to slow down oncoming traffic and block entrance ramps in the direction the wrong-way driver is heading. Slowing or stopping traffic to avoid collisions is the best possible scenario, he said.
“We’re definitely trained to refrain from following them in the wrong direction,” he said. “Then we’d become another hazard.”
In the most recent incident in Summerland, CHP officers and sheriff’s deputies attempted to stop the driver by flashing spotlights at her and driving parallel to the car on the other side of the freeway (going the right direction).
CHP stopped traffic heading toward the wrong-way driver, and the car ended up turning off the highway into a ditch near Evans Avenue.
Not all reported wrong-way drivers are caught. They may get off the freeway or realize their mistake and turn around by the time authorities get there, Kansupda said.
There are various reasons people drive the wrong way; alcohol is suspected in two of the three recent incidences.
“Even with adequate sign posting, we still face the real problem of wrong-way drivers,” Kansupda said. “I don’t think anything we do could change it.”
— Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at email@example.com.