Every year, 3 million people are injured in car accidents on U.S. roads. Around the holidays, travel can become even more treacherous due to weather and dangerous behaviors like alcohol consumption and drowsy driving. This year, Arizona officials are making a concerted effort to make the streets safer — but is it enough?
In mid-December, the Arizona Department of Transportation and Arizona Department of Public Safety partnered with the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety to launch a safety campaign, called “Drive Aware, Get There,” to reduce the risk of drivers being involved with wrong-way crashes. The campaign shows drivers how they can improve nighttime travel safety and what they should do if they come across a wrong-way vehicle during their drive. Arizona’s Department of Transportation was the first in the nation to install wrong-way detection and an overhead warning prototype (which uses thermal cameras) to alert drivers.
However, the agencies’ efforts have yet to have a considerable effect. In fact, Col. Frank Milstead, head of Arizona Department of Public Safety, recently told KTAR News 92.3 FM that the number of wrong-way driving accidents has actually increased — by more than 8%, no less — in the last year. The department has recorded 1,721 wrong-way driving incidents across the state since January 1, 2017. Although the $3.7 million thermal detection system, information campaigns, and assistance from the Phoenix Police Department has helped some, these factors clearly haven’t done enough.
Milstead said that a lack of police officers is partially to blame for the increased number of wrong-way drivers, but impaired driving is the main cause. He noted in a previous statement that around 70% of wrong-way crashes on state highways can be attributed to impaired driving. Considering that the average drunk driver has driven while intoxicated around 80 times before their first arrest, the combination of alcohol and too few police officers has proven to be a fatal one.
Milstead added, “If you look at the numbers of arrested drunk drivers over the last 10 years, they haven’t changed a lot because we as a society haven’t gotten in front of this issue and decided it’s unacceptable.”
However, there is some good news. While the number of wrong-way driving accidents hasn’t decreased this year, the number of DUI arrests in Arizona has — and ride-hailing services are getting a lot of credit for it. The presence of Uber and Lyft in the state have made a big difference, according to officials. Interestingly, the director of the Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, Alberto Gutier, also mentioned DUI task forces and an increased number of officers for the success (despite the fact that Milstead cited a dwindling police force as one reason for the increased number of wrong-way drivers).
Although drivers may need to think fast if they encounter a wrong-way driver, at least there were no scheduled freeway closures during the holidays. It’s not typically seen as a positive that the national construction industry eliminated more than 40% of its workforce between 2006 and 2011, but at least that means there’ll be no maintenance or construction on Arizona’s highways until January 2. Still, motorists should give themselves extra travel time and follow expert winter driving tips over the holidays and beyond, particularly for those who plan to travel to the northern part of the state.