Officer's Death in Wrong Way Crash Spotlights Growing Problem

The number of tragedies caused by drivers going the wrong way on Chicago area expressways is growing as safety experts call for more improvements aimed at preventing the deadly crashes.

Off-duty Chicago Ridge police officer Steve Smith, 27, was killed early Sunday in a wrong way crash on the Tri-State Tollway near Oak Brook. According to investigators, Smith was riding in the passenger seat of the vehicle hit by a driver heading south on the northbound side of I-294 in the vicinity of Cermak Road.

An NBC 5 Investigates analysis of state records shows more than 50 people have been killed and nearly 300 injured in Illinois as a result of wrong way crashes 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 Illinois Department of Transportation recently spent millions on safety improvements to warn drivers about wrong way driving, including the addition of more WRONG WAY signs on both sides of expressway ramps. The National Safety Council is calling for more improvements, including lowering warning signs to make them more visible to impaired drivers.

Smith joined the Chicago Ridge Police Department as a full-time police officer earlier this year. His police chief described Smith as outgoing and well-liked by fellow officers.

“Steve was a great person,” said Chicago Ridge Police Chief Robert Pyznarski. “He’s going to be truly missed by our officers and our department.”

Investigators said the driver of the car traveling south in the north bound lane received non-life threatening injuries. No charges have been filed at this time.

The Illinois Tollway said it could not comment on specifics of the crash , but said its highest priority is ensuring the safety of its customers. A spokesperson added the Illinois Tollway will continue to review these incidents on a case by case basis and work with the Illinois Department of Transportation and state police.

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