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Westchester Struggles To Find Solution For Wrong Way Driving

Double-posted “Do Not Enter” and “Wrong Way” signs on an exit ramp.
Double-posted “Do Not Enter” and “Wrong Way” signs on an exit ramp. Photo Credit: NYSDOT

WESTCHESTER COUNTY, N.Y. -- You are driving southbound down the highway as the sun begins to go down. Suddenly, you see the bright lights of another car coming northbound toward you.

Despite your warning honks and flashing, the car barrels past you, nearly hitting your car as it weaves through oncoming traffic.

This is horrifying situation is one some Westchester drivers have experienced in recent years as a result of wrong-way drivers.

Though wrong-way driving accidents existed long before 2009, the tragic story that caught the attention of Westchester, New York State and the nation was that of Diane Schuler, a 36-year-old Long Island mother who crashed her car into an SUV on the Taconic Parkway near Briarcliff Manor, killing herself, her daughter, three nieces and the three passengers in the SUV.

The incident, which became the subject of an HBO documentary, was investigated in-depth, and it was discovered that Schuler was intoxicated by alcohol and marijuana.

Though Schuler had little to no reportable history of excessive alcohol and drug consumption, results suggested she had drank and smoked as soon as 15 minutes before the accident.

A study was initiated by the National Transportation Safety Board and released in 2012, showing that out of the 1,566 wrong-way drivers in fatal crashes, 60 percent (936 drivers) were classified as alcohol-related.

Of the 1,150 wrong-way drivers involved in fatal collisions with known BAC results, about 59 percent (684 drivers) had high BAC levels—at or above 0.15.

By contrast, of all drivers involved in fatal crashes on US public roads during the same time period, about 22 percent had BACs reported at or above 0.15.

According to Beau Duffy, spokesman for the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT), because of the increased amount of wrong-way accidents in Westchester, the state has begun an initiative to add additional signage and markings in the Hudson Valley, specifically to the Taconic State Parkway, the Sprain Brook Parkway and the Palisades Parkway to prevent these accidents.

Duffy said, in total, 58 ramps across the three highways have had additional signs and pavement markings installed.

In neighboring Rockland County, the state has installed signs in Nyack that are monitored with Doppler radar, flashing if a driver is detected going the wrong way.

However, with impaired drivers being the No. 1 cause of wrong-way driving accidents, how effective can signs really be?

"Unfortunately, we find 60-75 percent of accidents are caused by intoxicated or inebriated drivers," he said, "But, with every accident, it's different."

According to Westchester County police spokesman Kieran O'Leary, drugs and alcohol are nearly ubiquitous in wrong-way driving cases that lead to accidents in Westchester.

While some drivers may drive the wrong way from confusion due to fog, otherwise poor weather conditions, lack of familiarity with the area and other factors, they will usually rectify their mistake if they are sober.

"Sober drivers who merge on the wrong side of the highway tend to realize their mistakes very quickly. Oftentimes they pull over and turn around within 25 feet," he said, "It's the ones that drive several miles and are completely zoned out on something that cause these accidents."

O'Leary said that, in the shadow of these tragedies, many people seek to identify one cause for the accident. In the case of Diane Schuler, perhaps such a tragedy would not have occurred had their been proper signage.

"All the signs in the world can't stop the consequences of impaired driving," he said, "There isn't one solution to cure this problem."

O'Leary said that Westchester roads are plagued with impaired drivers more than ever, due to abuse of alcohol, prescription medication and marijuana at all hours of the day.

"It used to be that you'd only see these kinds of things at night after last call, now it's not uncommon to see incidents occurring earlier - like at 11 a.m.," he said.

Because most wrong-way driving accidents are alcohol or drug related, Westchester County police generally pull over anyone they see driving the wrong way - even if they rectify it immediately.

"We put safety first. It is important for us to have conversations with those drivers," O'Leary said said.

The subject of wrong-way driving accidents is a sore one for the county police, as several officers have been killed or received career-ending injuries as a result of them.

O'Leary recalled an accident that happened as recently as three years ago, when an officer driving on the Bronx River Parkway was struck head-on and received career-ending injuries.

it is because of this and general concern for public safety that Westchester's police remain vigilant against impaired drivers, and cooperate with NYSDOT to make sure signage is effective and plentiful on state and county highways.

"We have a very good relationship with Westchester DOT and NYSDOT. Our cops report everything they see because they're always out in the streets," O'Leary said, "If a sign is down because of a storm, or some trees are blocking it, we have connections in place to report that and get it fixed."

Though a solution has not made itself evident, both state and county officials appear to be working relentlessly to decrease the number of wrong-way driving accidents in Westchester.

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