How wrong-way crashes are increasing in Illinois and elsewhere
By Marni Pyke
When Robert Strobl didn’t show up for his morning shift at a gas station in Naperville, his colleagues began to worry.
Her instinct was right: Strobl was always reliable, always punctual, said his sister Cecelia Hofmann.
On Strobl’s commute to work on Aug. 1, 2021, an SUV in Westmont swerved over the yellow line and ran straight into his path, ending the 70-year-old’s life, authorities said.
It was one of 2,247 wrong-way accidents in Illinois in 2021, a 13% increase from 2020, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. As a result of these collisions, 91 people died. A total of 1,406 were injured.
Figures for 2022 aren’t available yet, but over the past year, several wrong-way tragedies have rocked suburban residents.
On July 31, 2022, six members of the Dobosz family and a friend, Katriona Koziara, 13, were traveling west on I-90 from Rolling Meadows to Minnesota when an eastbound driver collided head-on with their van. All died.
On September 3, 2022, Mike Parr was working security at Septemberfest in Schaumburg when a wrong-way driver hit him while standing next to another vehicle. The husband and father of a recent college grad succumbed to his injuries about 3½ weeks later.
Just a week ago, two men in their 20s were killed on I-290 near Elk Grove after an Elgin motorist swerved eastbound in the westbound lanes and caused a head-on collision with a vehicle being driven by a man was driven from Washington.
Although wrong-way collisions are relatively rare, the results can be catastrophic, largely because they typically occur head-on and at high speeds, experts from the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Highway Administration and the AAA have found.
Six out of 10 wrong-way collisions involve alcohol impairment, AAA reported. That’s when the McHenry County coroner concluded in November that the driver who got into the Dobosz family’s van was intoxicated.
In Illinois, “this is still largely a driver’s issue,” said IDOT spokeswoman Maria Castaneda.
“Approximately two out of every three incidents (wrong-way driving) involve a disabled driver. Approximately one-third of all traffic fatalities in Illinois involve a disabled driver.
The NTSB notes that 9% of wrong-way drivers were convicted of drinking and driving in the three years prior to their offense. The agency and the AAA recommend that states make ignition locking devices mandatory for convicted felons. The devices require a breath sample, showing a driver is sober, in order to start the engine.
Drivers older than 70 are also at higher risk, accounting for 15% of those involved in fatal wrong-way accidents, the NTSB said.
Connecticut lawmakers’ work on engineering solutions became particularly urgent after a state legislature was killed by a wrong-way driver in early January. Some countermeasures include more visible “do not enter” signs and flashing lights that turn on when someone is driving the wrong way on freeway ramps, Pluribus News reported, citing federal data that showed 244 wrong-way fatalities in the U.S. a year increased to 407 in 2020 in 2010.
Cecelia Hofmann remembers pickup baseball games with her only brother, summer picnics, and celebrations around the Christmas tree.
Now she has disturbing visions of an oncoming car getting in her way and outrage at Strobl’s unnecessary death. The other driver in the accident was charged with serious DUI resulting in death.
“I am deeply saddened, emotionally wounded and haunted by his sudden and devastating death,” said Hofmann, an advocate for Allianz against drunk driving.
Just one thing
How should you react if another driver makes a head-on collision with your vehicle?
“If you see a wrong-way driver, carefully move to the right shoulder,” said AAA spokeswoman Molly Hart. “Avoid stepping on the brakes and call 911.”
And if you end up traveling in the wrong direction?
“Pull right and stop. Then try to turn around safely – if you can,” Hart said. “If you can’t turn around, call the police and ask for help.”
You should know
There are still a few free tickets left for the Chicago Auto Show. To win a pair, email [email protected] and explain which cars you would like to see and why, just like Des Plaines’ John Pontikes did.
He’s awaiting delivery of a 2023 Chevrolet Bolt, but “I’d love to see what other electric vehicles the automakers have planned for the near future. Tired of seeing SUVs and trucks and hoping they go back to sedans that have a certain style to them,” Pontikes wrote.