Florida Weighs How to Prevent Wrong-Way Crashes After Latest Fiery Disaster

Just after 12:30 a.m. last Wednesday, a 23-year-old chef named Alexandra Lefler, driving a white pickup truck, entered the northbound I-95 express lanes near Miami Gardens Drive — heading in the wrong direction. Minutes later, she slammed head-on into a Hyundai, killing all four of its passengers and herself in one of the grisliest accidents in South Florida last year.

But the accident is just the latest in a troubling pattern of wrong-way crashes on South Florida expressways, experts say. And some are asking whether highway planners could do more to prevent drivers like Lefler from barreling head-on into oncoming traffic.  

“These types of incidents seem to be happening more than ever before,” says Miami Fire Rescue Captain Faye Davis, a 24-year veteran of the department. “Now it seems like it’s almost every couple of weeks — just way too often. Something has to be done.”

And indeed, statistics show these types of crashes happen in Miami-Dade at a surprisingly high rate.

A study published by the Florida Department of Transportation in April found 280 wrong-way crashes killed 75 people on Florida highways between 2009 and 2013. Sixty of those crashes, or 21 percent, occurred in Miami-Dade County; ten of them were fatal.

Just last month, a wrong-way crash on I-95 in Miami killed 23-year-old Carmen Criales. Around 5:30 a.m. Sunday, December 13, 24-year-old Franklin Chavez was traveling southbound in the northbound lanes on I-95 near SW Eighth Street when his Toyota Yaris hit Criales’ Honda Civic head-on. 

According to the FDOT report, the majority of wrong-way crashes occur on weekends and in early-morning hours. Alcohol and/or drugs were involved in 45 percent of wrong-way crashes, more than 16 times the alcohol and/or drug involvement proportion for overall freeway/expressway crashes in Florida. And the majority of wrong-way crashes, or 71 percent, occurred in dark conditions.

So what can be done, other than better DUI prevention? Authorities are testing some technological solutions.

FDOT is experimenting with wrong-way detection devices and LED-illuminated WRONG WAY signs in pilot projects throughout the state, including 15 locations in South Florida. Family members of wrong-way crash victim Marisa Catronio are also working to introduce a bill to the Florida Legislature that will create more entrance-ramp awareness, along with physical devices to alert those driving the wrong way. In November 2013, Catronio and her best friend, Kaitlyn Ferrante, were killed on the Sawgrass Expressway by a drunk driver who was going the wrong way.  

Davis says roadway officials, in addition to working on the projects underway, should consider even bolder measures, such as spike strips that would puncture the tires on a vehicle entering the wrong way.

“We need something that stops these drivers from even getting on the highway,” she says. “Let’s think big.”

It's still not clear what caused Lefler to drive southbound in the northbound lane. She had just finished a restaurant shift when her pickup slammed into the Hyundai Sonata, killing 47-year-old Miguel Gil and his 71-year-old mother, Gisela Egui Hernandez, who had just picked up Gil’s sister and brother-in-law, Gisela Gil-Egui, 48, and Jose Martin Labrado, 52, from Miami International Airport.

“It’s horrible to go on any call, any accident, but the majority of the time you’re going on calls like this, there are gonna be fatalities,” Davis says. “It’s heartbreaking. It just shouldn’t happen.”
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Jessica Weiss