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The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has taken a major policy position dealing with wrong-way driving on the nation’s highways.

The NTSB is an independent federal agency with the duty to investigate all civil aviation accidents in the U.S. and significant accidents in other modes of transportation. Earlier this month, it announced the results of a study on wrong-way motor vehicle crashes on U.S. highways—a type of accident that Deborah Hersman, chair of the NTSB, called “completely preventable.”

Fatal Auto Accidents are common

The agency’s analysis of the problem reveals some shocking statistics. Nationwide, head-on collisions kill almost 400 people each year, in addition to inflicting serious injuries on many others. Fatal wrong-way accidents tend to kill more than one person on average. Nearly a quarter of all wrong-way collisions are fatal, in comparison to less than one percent of all other auto accidents.

The NTSB found that most wrong-way collisions begin when one driver enters a highway exit ramp in the wrong direction. The agency also analyzed accidents triggered by less common errors, such as making a U-turn on the highway or passing through the emergency turnaround in the median but driving against oncoming traffic.

Who’s at fault?

About 15 percent of wrong-way drivers are older than age 70; it is believed that many of these older drivers have become confused in highway traffic and may not even realize they’re driving in the wrong direction. But the NTSB says that drunk drivers are responsible for six out of ten wrong-way crashes—and that repeat offenders cause about ten percent of those collisions.

As a result of the study, the NTSB has produced a list of several policy recommendations to traffic safety organizations at the national and state levels. The proposal that gathered the most attention is the recommendation to state legislators that any person convicted of driving while intoxicated must have an ignition lock installed on his car. Currently, 17 states have laws requiring the use of an interlock device by all convicted drunk drivers.

Directions for the Future

The National Transportation Safety Board cannot directly change public policy for highway driving—that’s the responsibility of state governments. But we believe that the NTSB is on the right course here. Wrong-way collisions are horrific, and public policy needs to recognize that and respond more forcefully.

Currently, North Carolina law requires an interlock device to be installed on a vehicle if a driver is convicted of DWI with a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.15 or more, or if he has had two DWI convictions within seven years. Our Wilmington car accident lawyers believe that expanding this requirement to all persons convicted of DWI will save lives without infringing too much on civil liberties.