How Do We Know that Most Wrong Way Drivers Are Drunk?

Michael GrossmanJanuary 11, 2018 7 minutes

When we heard that two men were killed in a wrong-way collision shortly after midnight, New Year's Day, on I-35, near Wheatland Road, folks around the office wondered aloud whether or not alcohol or drugs may have played a role in the fatal accident. I don't want to discuss that in-depth, because the reporting about the accident has very little information and doesn't answer why the driver of a Hyundai was driving in the wrong direction on I-35.

However, it's common knowledge that in the majority of wrong-way driving accidents, alcohol or drugs plays a significant role. When we discussed this particular accident in-house, it occurred to us that no one could recall where we first heard this fact. In our line of work, not remembering a source is a cause for great concern. We pride ourselves on reporting and analyzing the news and the law accurately.

When we find ourselves quoting common wisdom, without remembering the source, there's a chance that instead of sharing quality information, we're perpetuating urban myths. That's why I felt it necessary to take a moment and track down the a solid answer for how we know that most wrong-way drivers are intoxicated.

It's only when we arm ourselves with accurate facts, that we can discuss the serious topic of fatal wrong-way driving with clarity and purpose.

Who Says the Majority of Wrong-Way Drivers Are Intoxicated?

I should probably start with a bit of a mea culpa. In the past, we've incorrectly stated that 90% of wrong-way drivers are under the influence of either drugs or alcohol. I didn't scrutinize a source as carefully as I should have and what I referenced was a report stating that for a period of 3 years during the late 2000's, 90% of wrong-way drivers on the North Texas Tollway were found to be under the influence.

Well, what is true for a 10-mile stretch of road in Dallas doesn't necessarily hold true for highways across the country. For a broader look at how many wrong-way drivers are intoxicated, we have three main sources; a 1989 study by the California Department of Transportation, a study by the Texas Transportation Institute, and work done by the Federal Highway Administration.

According to the Texas Transportation Institute and the Federal Highway Administration, somewhere between 50 and 60% of all wrong-way drivers are either drunk or high on drugs. A 1989 California Department of Transportation study shows that in almost 75% of fatal wrong-way accidents, the driver who was traveling against traffic had drugs or alcohol in their system.

While measuring different things, these numbers tend to reinforce one another. It's pretty easy to understand why there would be more intoxicated drivers in the pool of fatal accidents than the number of drunk drivers overall. In order for a fatal accident to occur, someone usually has to travel some distance against the flow of traffic. Since a good many fatal wrong-way accidents occur on interstates and other limited access highways, a driver to be more than just lost to not notice that they're going against the flow of traffic. Another way of putting is that most sober wrong-way drivers quickly realize their dangerous mistake and pull over, whereas drivers who are drunk enough to get on the road in the opposite direction of traffic have other things clouding their judgement.

How Reliable Are Wrong-Way Driver Statistics?

One thing that I couldn't determine from my review of these studies was how they accounted for regional variations in drunk-driving and road design. For instance, there are anecdotal stories of different wrong-way driving prevention strategies in places as far-flung as California, Houston, and Dallas. Since these are unevenly applied, it's fair to assume that there are roads out there, whose very design discourages wrong-way driving. Just as some roads are littered with potholes, while others are smooth and well-maintained, some highways have upgrades that discourage wrong-way driving, while others do not.

As a result, it's quite likely that better road designs can deter almost all non-intoxicated drivers from entering the road and driving in the wrong direction. This in turn can skew the proportion of intoxicated wrong-way drivers. While the roads are one component of the equation, the other side of the ledger is how prevalent drunk driving is in a given area.

For example, Texas has a much bigger problem with drunk-driving than California. Despite having 9 million fewer residents, Texas has almost 500 more alcohol-related driving fatalities than California. Unless one thinks that Texans are just worse drunk drivers than Californians, this would indicate that there are more drunk drivers on a Texas road than one in California.

Simply as a result of having more drunk drivers, we would expect Texas to have more wrong-way drunk drivers than in California. We can deduce this from the fact that there is very little reason to believe that the population of wrong-way drivers who aren't intoxicated will vary much between the two states. So when you add in more drunk drivers, they'll likely make up a bigger proportion of wrong-way drunk drivers.

So if we're being completely honest, most wrong-way driver statistics have a lot of wiggle room and uncertainty surrounding them. It would also be nice if there were more than 3 bell-weather studies of the topic. However, while these numbers are not as exact as a census count, where we tally up actual human beings, they are useful when discussing the issue of wrong-way drunk driving in broad strokes.

It Makes Sense that The Majority of Fatal Wrong-Way Accidents Involve Alcohol

Even if you don't completely trust the numbers, it's pretty easy to intuit why most fatal wrong-way driving accidents involve intoxication. First, most of these accidents occur on highways. It's not that easy to get on a highway in the wrong direction without noticing. Even if you miss numerous warning signs, the fact that you only see the back of road signs, or red reflectors instead of white, most sober people will quickly realize they're on the left side of the road, instead of the right.

I've driven through construction zones that redirect traffic to temporary roads that are to the left of the opposite flow of traffic and even though I knew we were all going the right way, it was still a bit eerie. Most people are going to notice that opposing traffic isn't where they're used to seeing it. Usually, this by itself is disturbing enough for people to question what they're doing.

There's also the small and not so subtle issue of headlights approaching you in your lane. I can see how this happening once might lead a lost or panicked person to think that the other driver was the one traveling in the wrong direction, but lost or panicked drivers will certainly know something is wrong by the time a second car is heading straight for them.

All of this is to point out that there are so many indications that one has to ignore or be oblivious to in order to cause a wrong-way fatal accident, that it's pretty reasonable to conclude that some type of impairment plays a role. Certainly, there are some wrong-way accidents that happen so quickly that the driver, whether intoxicated or stone-cold sober can't react, but those are relatively few.

Road Design Can Only Do So Much To Prevent Fatal Wrong-Way Crashes

Ultimately, numbers like these are merely trivia, unless someone takes steps to rectify the problem. Certainly, state departments of transportation are doing their part, trying to design roads that discourage wrong-way driving and the success of anti-drunk-driving campaigns has yielded a drop in drunk driving over the past 4 decades, but is there more that the community can do to combat this problem?

When discussing fatal wrong-way driving wrecks, the elephant in the room is bars. Drunk drivers cause the majority of fatal wrong-way crashes and the majority of drunk drivers are coming from a bar. To be blunt, it's not just people deciding to drink too much causing these accidents, but bars who break the law and serve obviously intoxicated people.

Remember the signs that you're driving on the wrong side of the road that I mentioned before? These aren't things that people miss when they've had one drink too many. To not even notice that cars are coming your way, in your lane, you have to be many drinks beyond the legal threshold for intoxication. So I'm not even discussing bars that serve people until they're too drunk to legally drive, but bars that serve people who are obviously a danger to themselves or others.

Think of it another way. If a stranger came up to you at a bar and asked you to buy them a drink, you're most likely going to say no. If that same stranger asked for you to pick up their tab for the whole night, I can't think of too many people who will say yes. And if that same stranger asked for you to pay for all their drinks, the rest of their drinking days, well I imagine no one is going to agree to that.

Some folks view efforts to scrutinize bars' role in this problem as shifting the blame from drunk drivers and an attempt to make bars pay a price for just doing their jobs. They scoff at things like liquor liability law that holds irresponsible bars financially accountable when they break the law.

What if I told you that when we don't hold bars accountable and make them pay for when they break the law, the rest of us are left picking up the tab? One need look no further than the hundreds of thousands of dollars the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) spent just a few years ago on improvements to reduce wrong-way drivers on the North Dallas Tollway. In that instance, it's reasonable to conclude that bars were the primary driver for these costs.

According to a NTTA report, almost all wrong-way drivers on the North Dallas Tollway in the mid-to-late 2000s were entering the highway at its southern end, near the intersection of several bar districts in Dallas. At the same time, authorities found that almost all of the wrong-way drivers who were caught were intoxicated when they entered the highway.

It's highly likely that bars breaking the law are the source of these wrong-way drivers. Who picks up the tab for these necessary road improvements? Everyone who uses the North Dallas Tollway. At the same time, the bars pocket the money they make from breaking the law.

And I'm only talking about one 10 mile stretch of highway. Most of the roads are owned by the government, which means that taxpayers generally pay the freight for road improvements to cut down on wrong-way drivers. If this phenomenon were the result of poorly designed roads, I would agree that it's the government's obligation to fix the matter. However, the evidence shows that the majority of this problem comes from an informal conspiracy between drunk drivers and bars. Shouldn't they have to pay their fair share?

I realize that many people think that holding bars accountable for their role in drunk-driving accidents unfairly punishes bars. I think that most of those folks fail to realize the costs that irresponsible bars impose on the community, costs indirectly borne by the very people who oppose holding bars financially accountable for breaking the law. Millions of dollars of life-saving road improvements are just a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of millions in unpaid medical expenses that drunk drivers leave in their wake. Those lead to higher insurance premiums and government medical expenditures, which affect each and every one of us.

This may sound a bit far afield from my original inquiry into where our wrong-way driver statistics come from, but the main significance of those statistics is that they allow us to more clearly understand the problem of wrong-way driver fatalities. Unlike many other problems, which don't have clear solutions, wrong-way driver fatalities can be greatly curtailed when we go after the source of the problem. Far too often, the source of that problem is a bar that refused to do what they agreed to do when they got a liquor license, not serve already drunk patrons.