Wrong Way Crashes Stand Out in Chicago Area

An analysis of state records shows more than 50 people have been killed and nearly 300 injured as a result of wrong-way crashes in Illinois since 2005

A car is heading the wrong direction on the interstate and speeding toward you. What do you do? This nightmare scenario has led to hundreds of accidents on Chicago area expressways in recent years, according to data obtained by NBC 5 Investigates.

An analysis of state records shows more than 50 people have been killed and nearly 300 injured as a result of wrong-way crashes in Illinois since 2005. Those records indicate there were 198 crashes on Chicago's interstates and expressways, where wrong-way driving was listed as a primary cause, between 2005 and 2012. Information on wrong-way accidents between 2013 and the present is not readily available, however, the state now estimates approximately 10 to 15 wrong-way collisions in Illinois each year lead to fatalities and/or serious injuries.

The most recent tragedy occurred in January on the Eisenhower Expressway when a van carrying musicians returning from a gig in Wisconsin was hit head-on. Juan Carlos Salazar, 29, was killed and four others were injured. The driver of the car that hit the van was charged with aggravated DUI.

The majority of wrong-way crashes involve a driver who has been drinking, with the majority taking place in the early morning hours in urban areas, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation.

The state’s crash data reveals nine crashes (where wrong-way was listed as a primary cause) occurred on the stretch of I-57 between the Ryan and the Tri-State between 2005 and 2012. And twelve wrong-way accidents took place on a section of I-90 between the Edens and O’Hare International Airport during the same time frame, with five of the crashes occurring at or near the Lawrence Avenue entrance.

There have been four fatalities from wrong-way crashes on Lake Shore Drive since 2013, according to the Chicago Police Department and an analysis of news archives. Six wrong-way accidents on Lake Shore Drive occurred at or near the Roosevelt entrance.

So what do you do if you see a car speeding toward you on the interstate, expressway or divided freeway? Safety experts say stay in the far right lane. Why? Because experts say most wrong way drivers travel in the left lane, thinking they are going the correct way.

Deborah Hersman of the National Safety Council, located in Itasca, led the National Transportation Safety Board during a 2012 study of wrong-way driving. She said many of the people involved in these crashes don’t realize they are going the wrong direction.

“We’ve got to do a better job of saving lives and preventing injuries and that means investing money on the front end, whether it’s in technology or signs or redesign,” Hersman said.

Some states utilize three foot warning sign poles on roads to address alcohol and nighttime problem locations. Safety experts have said lower signs may grab the attention of impaired drivers who tend to look down because they’re worried about staying in their lane.

The Illinois Department of Transportation sponsored a 2012 study that focused on wrong-way driving. As part of the study, IDOT identified highway interchange designs that are most susceptible to wrong-way entries and the countermeasures, such as signage and lane markings, that have “proven to be the most effective and cost conscious.” The department then invested $7 million on safety improvements at potential problem spots, including ”Do Not Enter” and “Wrong Way” signs in a series on both the left and the right side of ramps, supplementing sign posts with a red reflective sheeting for emphasis, increasing the size of signs where possible and additional “Wrong Way” signs along longer ramps.

“We do continue to investigate wrong-way driving incidents we are made aware of so we can review the location and identify any potential roadway safety countermeasures to help prevent future ones,” said IDOT spokesperson Guy Tridgell.

IDOT said improvements to counter potential wrong-way driving were made at the following interchanges:

  • I-90/94 and 87th Street
  • US41 and West Belmont Avenue
  • I-90/94 and 35th Street
  • I-57 and South Halsted Street
  • I-90/94 and West Foster Avenue
  • I-90/94 and Touhy Avenue
  • I-90/94 and Cermak Road
  • I-55 and South Damen Avenue
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