NTSB Investigates Wrong-Way Driver Accidents

By Don Karol

In 1968, a year after the NTSB was established, investigators responded to an accident near Baker, California. A driver with a minimum blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.15 percent drove in the wrong direction on Interstate 15 and collided with a 39-passenger bus. The driver and 19 bus passengers were killed, and 11 others seriously injured.

Twenty years later, the NTSB responded to a similar tragedy in Carrollton, Kentucky. A driver with a BAC of 0.26 percent drove his pickup truck the wrong way on Interstate 71 and collided with a church activity bus. The bus driver and 26 passengers were killed and 34 others sustained minor to critical injuries. The Carrollton accident is the deadliest impaired driving accident in U.S. history.

Today, more than 20 years after the Carrollton disaster, fatal crashes caused by drivers traveling the wrong direction on high-speed, divided highways continue to pose a serious safety risk. Although wrong-way accidents on divided highways are relatively infrequent, when they occur, they typically result in more fatalities and serious injuries than other types of highway accidents.

That’s why in August 2011, the NTSB commenced a special investigation into wrong-way driver accidents. The goal is to identify strategic solutions which will help prevent similar tragic accidents from happening.

Since August, the NTSB has responded to six wrong-way driver accidents which have killed seven and injured eight more. In four of the six accidents, local law enforcement determined that the drivers of the vehicles were alcohol-impaired, a leading cause of automobile crashes. Part of the investigation will examine possible approaches and solutions to reducing alcohol-impaired driving.

During the course of the special investigation, the NTSB will review police reports and analyze information contained in highway accident databases to learn more about the factors that contribute to wrong-way accidents. To help build a foundation for the report, investigators will be conducting an in-depth review of historical and ongoing research in wrong-way driver accident mitigation. In addition, the special investigation will examine the effectiveness of highway design improvements and advanced vehicle technologies that can be used to prevent these accidents.

The special investigation will be completed by Fall 2012 and the NTSB expects it will identify specific areas where safety improvements may be warranted.


Don Karol is the Director of NTSB’s Office of Highway Safety

2 thoughts on “NTSB Investigates Wrong-Way Driver Accidents”

  1. Require alcohol interlocks upon first offense, regardless of how it is handled by the judicial system. Will the investigation examine how many of these wrong-way drivers had previous DUI arrests and/or convictions on their records at the time of their wrong-way accidents?

  2. One of the compounding problems with wrong-way drivers is many of them fail to activate their headlamps, so seeing them coming your way is difficult to impossible in time to avoid a collision at night. Often impaired drivers will seek the slow lane, which if they are wrong-way, is your fast lane. Some law enforcement agencies recommend to their officers/deputies to try best to use their own slow lane in impaired driver peak hours, which could help avoid a deadly freeway head-on.

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