Imagine you’re driving on Interstate 5, barrelling along at 70 mph, when you see a car coming straight at you.
Detectives say Gage W. Musgrave, 84, of Vancouver, drove at least a mile southbound in the northbound lanes of I-5, enough time for four horrified onlookers to call 911 before his car crashed into oncoming traffic. The Feb. 28 accident killed a 6-year-old La Center boy.
The Washington State Patrol has yet to pinpoint where Musgrave entered the freeway. It’s possible he got turned around in the Gee Creek rest area. It’s also possible that he entered the northbound offramp at Exit 11. The mouths of the northbound offramp and onramp are a few feet apart. Either way, he would have driven by several bright-red wrong-way signs.
Musgrave is cooperating with the Washington State Patrol’s investigation, which is ongoing. “The investigation revealed there is no cause of impairment, although we have an 84-year-old male,” Trooper Will Finn said. “Everybody wants answers as to what happened.”
Alcohol or age are frequently factors in wrong-way crashes, which are rare and random. When they do occur, they tend to be fatal. That’s why traffic engineers are always looking for ways to prevent them, most recently with a pilot project deploying wrong-way signs with flashing lights.
Wrong-way collisions account for about 3 percent of accidents on high-speed divided highways, according to a 2012 report by the National Transportation Safety Board. The report also found:
• Nationwide, an average of 360 lives are lost each year in about 260 fatal wrong-way collisions.
• The primary cause is drivers entering the freeway on an offramp, but some turn around on the freeway because they missed an exit.
• Of the 1,566 wrong-way drivers involved in fatal accidents between 2004 and 2009, 60 percent had consumed alcohol.
• Most wrong-way drivers were between the ages of 20 and 50. However, a disproportionate number — 15 percent — were older than 70.
• Most wrong-way accidents occur in the far left lane.
Traffic collision data don’t show any wrong-way hot-spots on Clark County highways, according to both the State Patrol and the transportation department.
“Occasionally, we do get reports of wrong-way drivers. Most of the time, they correct themselves before we get there,” Finn said.
Wrong-way crashes occur randomly and don’t seem to follow any pattern, said Chad Hancock, a Washington State Department of Transportation traffic engineer.
“There’s no one (interchange) I could point to and say we have an issue,” Hancock said.
The NTSB, however, found trends nationwide. Partial interchanges such as the one at Exit 11 have twice the wrong-way entry rate of full interchanges, according to the NTSB report.
Where highways connect, engineers prefer to keep traffic flowing with full cloverleaf and flyover interchanges, much like you’ll find at state Highway 500 and Interstate 205, said Rick Keniston, a project development manager for the state transportation department. But an interchange design has to account for the constraints of any particular location.
Initially, state engineers planned to use a diamond interchange, much like the one at I-5 and Northeast 78th Street, for the new connection between I-5 and state Highway 502, Keniston said. Gee Creek and the existing rest area, as well as steep slopes, foiled that option. So engineers settled on the partial cloverleaf, called a parclo, for the Battle Ground exit.
No wrong-way activity had been noted there in the five years since it opened until the Feb. 28 crash.
State transportation officials can’t say yet whether the recent wrong-way crash near Exit 11 warrants any revisions there.
“We are working with the State Patrol as they continue their investigation,” said Abbi Russell, a state transportation department spokeswoman. “Once they determine where the driver came from, that will help.”
She said engineers are always reviewing and adjusting traffic controls. Since the I-5 Battle Ground interchange opened, the state has added signs, diamond reflectors, striping and reflective tape, Russell said.
In 2010, the state transportation department’s Southwest Region began a pilot project using flashing lights on wrong-way signs. They were first deployed on the Highway 14 offramp to C Street in Vancouver. Fatal wrong-way crashes, both involving drunk drivers, occurred on westbound Highway 14 in 2007 and 2010.
In addition to two flashing wrong-way signs at Highway 14, the state transportation department has placed one on the I-5 southbound ramp onto 39th Street, and two on the connection between I-205 and Northeast 112th Avenue. No wrong-way crashes have occurred since the signs went in, Hancock said. The study is continuing.