DRAPER, Utah — It’s a terrifying moment: the headlights are coming your way, with only a second to react. Reverse collisions are often devastating, with cars exploding to pieces when they hit highway speeds.
It’s an experience Winter Brailow, 24, survived two years ago.
“The more time passes, the more salient this night becomes,” recalls Brailow. “I saw lights ahead. I didn’t really think, ‘Oh, there’s someone on the wrong side of the road.’ »
On the night of May 19, 2020, Brailow was traveling south on Interstate 15 through the Pleasant Grove area, when a driver in front of him turned around and started driving the wrong way.
Brailow tried to exit the freeway at Lindon, but the driver veered into his car.
“I pushed my head all the way back and boom,” she said. “Next thing I know, I wake up to two teenagers yelling at me and I’m stuck in my car. So, it was a really scary night.
The driver who hit her died in the accident. Winter was alive, but seriously injured.
“I fought so hard,” she said. “It was one of the longest times firefighters had to use the Jaws of Life to get me out of my car.”
Brailow spent two months in hospital and underwent 13 surgeries. His spleen ruptured. She suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result of the accident. She broke more than 30 bones, including several in her left arm, which she described as “disemboweled in the accident and stuck in the car door”.
Two years later, Brailow still sees complications arising from the accident. “When you start listing all these little things, it starts to seem absurd.”
Before the accident, Brailow was a student at Harvard, with law aspirations. She was able to continue her education through online learning with the school. Her experiences of the accident inspired her to pursue disability law.
Despite injuries and multiple surgeries, she celebrates life.
“I fought very hard to stay alive, and I’m really proud of that,” she beamed. “I’m really proud to still be here and doing everything I’m doing to keep going.”
Still, Brailow stressed that what she went through should have been avoided.
When she received the accident report weeks later, she said she discovered a six-minute response time between the first 911 calls reporting a wrong-way driver and when law enforcement contacted after impact.
“It made me angry,” she said. “It made me really angry to find out that it was so long before they got to me.”
On track for deadliest year for wrong-way crashes
Brailow’s story is one of many devastating stories from Utah’s highways.
In July 2022, eight people died in crashes this year after someone got on the highway in the wrong direction. This number is close to setting a five-year high with five months remaining in the year.
Fatal wrong-way crashes on Utah highways
- 2018 — 6 deaths
- 2019 — 2 deaths
- 2020 — 9 deaths
- 2021 — 7 deaths
This begs the question: can anything be done to prevent more deaths?
We spoke to Utah Department of Transportation Traffic and Safety Director Robert Miles, who said preventing contraflow wrecks was a priority.
“We want to focus on reducing the number of accidents and reducing the number of instances that could become an accident,” Miles said. There are commonalities with these fatal accidents. UDOT data shows that seven out of eight fatal wrong-way crashes this year involved an impaired driver. This data focused only on split-freeway crashes and does not include crashes where someone crossed the center line.
Warn wrong-way drivers
Ensuring that drunk or drug-impaired drivers stay in the correct lanes takes some creativity.
“We doubled down on the ‘do not enter’ and ‘wrong way’ signs,” Miles said. “We’ve added the ability to put lights around the outside of these signs to help draw attention to them.”
Additionally, UDOT painted more arrows on roads at confusing intersections and replaced green lights with green arrows to clarify lane direction. While the UDOT and Utah Highway Patrol have only begun to separate outbound traffic crashes from other frontal crashes in the data, they are still looking at the numbers to see if there are any hot spots.
KSL took geolocation data from all wrong-way crashes on Utah freeways and freeways to see if there were any patterns. Some places, like the I-80 and I-15 exit at 600 South, stood out. This is where two people were killed in March after a man drove on I-15 in the wrong direction.
KSL asked UDOT about another possible tool, one that many viewers emailed and commented on as a solution: integrated strip spikes on freeway on- and off-ramps. Miles said it wouldn’t work for many reasons.
“They’re not really designed to run on big semis that hit them at the speed that ours do,” Miles said. “They’re not really designed to work in an area where you put salt to remove the ice during the winter. They clog up, they get stuck, and they’re not really good at doing that.
Miles mentioned another statistic that makes tire shredders impractical: Most drivers who enter the wrong way realize their mistake and correct themselves.
It’s something UDOT observed through 28 FLIR thermal cameras installed at various freeway entry points throughout the state. Installed in 2020, the cameras warn UDOT staff when a vehicle is entering the wrong way.
Images from these cameras show that most people turn around before entering the freeway system. If their tires are punctured by a strip of studs, it could unnecessarily obstruct traffic with a disabled vehicle.
Tapes may also fail to stop impaired drivers.
“The record will show that there are many instances where they continue to drive and are still a concern for people,” Miles said.
Currently, thermal imaging cameras do not have the technology to communicate with the driver or directly with law enforcement, although the latter is a UDOT wishlist item.
“When we find a system that meets those boxes, we will move forward in that area,” Miles said. When soldiers are the last line of defense
When soldiers are the last line of defense
In February, Private Devin Henson was called out for a reverse driving incident on I-15 in Salt Lake County.
“I can still see his headlights, he doesn’t seem to be slowing down at all,” Henson recalled. “Then he turns to my driver’s side like he’s trying to go around me, and I know if he goes around me he’s always putting other people’s lives at risk.”
Henson made the decision to ram the driver, who was arrested and booked on suspicion of impaired driving.
Henson suffered minor injuries.
So far this year, UHP has responded to 99 calls from wrong-way drivers. For Henson, it brings a certain sense of dread.
“I knew I had to eliminate this danger,” he recalls. “Afterwards, again on patrol, still on night duty, you go down. You see the headlights coming towards you and it replays that night seeing the headlights and they are actually on the right side of the road and you can calm down a bit.
Contraflow driving is a deadly trend in #Utah with 8 deaths already this year. TONIGHT @ 10 @CindyStClair08 and thoroughly examine the problem and possible solutions. You’ll also hear from a woman who was hit by a wrong-way driver and how it turned her life upside down.@KSL5TV pic.twitter.com/7Vlnx000KT
— Shara Park ✨ (@KSLSharaPark) July 27, 2022
According to Maj. Jeff Nigbur, the UHP’s goal is to stop drivers through traffic checks rather than force.
“We’ve created a contraflow driver task force,” Nigbur explained. “We’re looking at ways to identify where it’s happening, how we can best apply it.”
With nearly 90% of wrong-way deaths this year involving drivers impaired by drugs or alcohol, better enforcement of drink-driving could make a difference at troublesome freeway entrances. In recent years, staffing these patrols has been tricky.
“We’ve only had three or four guys on our DUI squad, and that’s usually nine,” Nigbur said. “Hopefully with some of the information we get from the task force, we will be able to identify hotspots… where we think they are progressing and hopefully target those areas with the DUI team to maybe see a decrease in the wrong way driver problem.
Ultimately, UHP says wrong-way driving is a problem that can be prevented – by people who choose to drive sober and aware.
“Obviously you shouldn’t drive while impaired,” Henson said. “There are easier ways to get around town. Drunk driving shouldn’t be on the radar of things you can get away with.
What to do if you encounter a bad driver
As state agencies explore solutions, they’re sharing tips to help prevent head-on collisions.
Soldiers urged vigilance, focusing far in front of your car rather than the bumper directly in front of you, giving you more time to notice a bad driver and react.
Stay on track as much as possible. Most wrong-way collisions occur in the left lane.
And if you encounter someone going the wrong way or crossing a center line, try not to panic or slam the brakes. Instead, pull over if it is safe to do so and pull over before calling 911 to report the driver.
Have you experienced something that you think just isn’t right? KSL investigators want to help. Submit your tip to [email protected] or 385-707-6153 so we can work for you.