• 9 investigates: Why are there so many wrong-way crashes on I-485?

    By: Blaine Tolison

    Updated:

    CHARLOTTE - When wrong-way drivers crash, the result can be catastrophic.

    Eyewitness News anchor Blaine Tolison investigated a disturbing trend of wrong-way crashes along Interstate 485 -- a 67-mile stretch of interstate that state troopers patrol -- and learned about factors that could be contributing to the crashes.

    In just the last year, eight wrong-way drivers have made their way onto I-485. Troopers stopped three of them, but five others crashed.

    In those crashes, seven people died and several others were hurt.

    Matt Morrison narrowly avoided being killed in January when a wrong-way driver came toward him on I-485 near West Boulevard.

    "Then, I see this white panel van blocking the far left lane." Morrison said, "The seconds feel like minutes."

    He said the van stopped, facing sideways on the interstate. Morrison veered to the shoulder, where two cars hit him. He wasn't hurt, but watched in horror as the van continued going the wrong way.

    He said the next moment was surreal.

    "He goes on down the road and then you see a plume of smoke and fire. It's like disbelief. I'm just looking in disbelief," Morrison said.

    The van's driver, who troopers said was intoxicated, was killed, along with an innocent driver.


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    Channel 9 interviewed North Carolina Sen. Joel Ford about the issue. Ford represents Mecklenburg County's district.

    "One fatality is one too many," said Ford, who sits on two state transportation committees.

    He told Tolison that he has spoken with North Carolina Department of Transportation officials about the issue and is pushing for wrong-way driver technology.

    Channel 9 has reported on that technology, which can detect wrong-way drivers and alert authorities. It's being tested on Raleigh's Triangle Expressway but is still years in the making.

    Ford said installing the technology on Charlotte roads was “a priority, but it is one of several priorities that we have to deal with in this region."

    Troopers said nearly all of the drivers involved in fatal wrong-way crashes were drunk. Some were even three times the legal limit.

    Ford told Tolison he wants the state to hire more troopers to conduct DWI enforcement on the interstates.

    Part of the problem, and perhaps the biggest challenge for troopers, is the sheer size of I-485. They said that even if there was some kind of technology to detect wrong-way drivers, there are no guarantees troopers would get to them before they caused an accident.

    The night Morrison watched the van going the wrong way, he said there was hardly enough time to call 911 before the fatal crash.

    "There was no way to stop them," he said.

    From Chopper 9 Skyzoom, Tolison took a closer look at the exits and entrances to I-485, including a design that positions them right next to one another. We showed the aerial images to Dr. Wei Fan, a civil engineer at UNC Charlotte who also teaches and researches for the USDOT.

    "We call it the partial cloverleaf design," he said upon viewing the aerial images.

    The design is known as the “PARCLO” for short. Fan said it handles a lot of vehicles and is cost-effective, but that it has a big flaw.

    "This design is more susceptible to wrong-way driving movements because the driver could be confused," he said.

    Especially if that driver is intoxicated. Troopers often can't determine exactly where a wrong-way driver got on I-485, but Fan said the interchanges could use extra signage and pavement markings to cut down on confusion.

    "I think we should do our best efforts to counter any loss of life," said Morrison.

    Channel 9 checked and found there are at least five projects planned for I-485 to improve pavement markings for safety, but could not find any specific plans to change or add to the partial cloverleaf exits and on-ramps.

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