The Investigators: Wrong-Way Drivers Killed at Least 22 in Last 5 Years

Most of the crashes happened along Route 128, I-93, I-195, I-90 and I-91

Tayler McBarron was on Interstate 495 near Plainville, halfway to her parents’ house on Cape Cod for Thanksgiving after her shift at Applebee’s in Fitchburg, when the headlights came right at her. 

“I saw bright lights coming in between the tail lights, so I was like, ‘Are those headlights?’” McBarron, 22, said. “He actually swerved into my lane and hit me.” 

Her car careened sideways and lay to rest in the middle of the road. Another person almost hit her, she said. 

A wrong-way driver, 22-year-old James Keating, a Bridgewater State football player, died, the 13th person killed in a wrong-way crash on Massachusetts Interstates in 2016. 

Since 2011, at least 22 people were killed and more than 100 others injured in crashes caused by people driving the wrong way on Interstates in Massachusetts, an extensive NBC Boston review of state citations and crash data revealed. 

Neither the Massachusetts Department of Transportation nor the State Police track how many drivers crash or are stopped driving the wrong way on an Interstate. 

But through a review of more than 1,900 citations provided by the Registry of Motor Vehicles for driving the wrong way on a state highway or on the Massachusetts Turnpike, and a dive into a MassDOT crash database, NBC Boston pieced together a partial picture of just how many drivers get on Interstates going the wrong way. 

Since 2011, there have been at least 407 drivers were caught going the wrong way on Interstates or roads that function like Interstates – like Route 24, Route 128 east of Peabody or Route 2 between Concord and Phillipston. Of those, 148 or 36 percent, were crashes. At least 22 people were killed and 109 injured. 

The numbers could be higher because the MassDOT crash data, which includes a data section for police to note a wrong way driver and notes how many injuries and fatalities each crash had, only goes through 2014. And some crash records did not contain wrong-way notations, or did not list the directions of travel of the vehicles involved. 

Most of the crashes happened around the most heavily-traveled roads: All along Route 128, I-93 in and south of Boston, I-195 in and around Fall River, and I-90 and I-91 in and around Springfield. Many involved alcohol and happened overnight. 

MassDOT highway administrator Thomas J. Tinlin said the state lowered about 350 the red square “wrong way” signs on exit ramps to prevent people from getting on the wrong ramp. 

“No, you don’t put a price on public safety,” Tinlin said in an interview in October, after a wrong-way crash on I-495 in Middleborough killed five people. “I appreciate the question, I do, but if there was some technology available we thought would make it a safer roadway to benefit the public we wouldn’t let the price get in the way.” 

Rhode Island found a technology the state is piloting on some Interstates that state officials said has eliminated wrong way driving on those roads —all paid for with a $600,000 federal highway safety grant. 

The system includes several phases that escalate the kinds of alerts to drivers, starting with flashing lights and signs, followed by warnings to oncoming drivers. Cameras on the roads link to a state command center. 

Rhode Island officials said since the system was installed at 24 of the worst sites in early 2015, 68 wrong-way drivers self-corrected. There have been no crashes, no injuries, and no fatalities. 

Meanwhile, wrong-way drivers continue to plague Massachusetts highways. Last week, police said a man drove on two different Interstates before finally being stopped on I-95. He was charged with drunken driving.

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