On Friday, April 14th at 2 A.M., Keaton Tyler Allison, a 21-year-old student at Grand Canyon University (GCU), was driving the wrong way down Interstate 17. Approaching the Greenway Road exit, Allison collided head on with a driver traveling the right way on the 17. Carrying fellow GCU student Karlie Arlene Richardson, 20, and her sister Kelsey Mae Richardson, 18, neither vehicle made any attempt to brake, and the cars collided at a high rate of speed.
With all three individuals trapped in their vehicles, they were pronounced dead at scene after being extricated by Phoenix fire emergency crews.
Bob Romantic, a spokesman at GCU, released the following statement to students and staff in an email sent early Friday morning: “It is with great sorrow and heavy hearts that we share the news that three people, including two students from Grand Canyon University, were killed in a wrong-way driver accident last night on Interstate 17… As a close-knit community of students, faculty, and staff, please keep these families in your thoughts and prayers during this tragic time.”
The death of these three individuals is heartbreaking, and sadly, not a unique situation in Arizona. In 2016 alone, the Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) received more than 1,600 reports of wrong-way drivers, 27 of which resulted in serious injury or death. Of those 1,600 cases, more than 100 of the drivers were arrested with suspicion of impairment.
These incidents didn’t begin in 2016 either. Back in June 2014, ADOT, DPS, and the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety held an emergency meeting to help combat the increase in wrong-way driving accidents. At the end of that month, Arizona transportation officials erected new signage at various highway exit ramps throughout the state, including larger “do not enter” signs and an additional “wrong way” sign below. They also painted two large arrows equipped with light reflectors signaling the correct direction of travel.
In 2014, DPS reported fielding an average of 25 calls per month with reports of a wrong-way driver on an Arizona freeway. In 2012, wrong-way drivers played a role in 15 fatalities, and 78 fatalities between 2008 and 2012. So it’s clear that this problem is nothing new, and appears to be worsening.
So what is being done in 2017 to reduce the number of wrong-way drivers and save lives along Arizona freeways?
An ADOT spokesperson says they’ve received an influx of suggestions from the public regarding possible preventative solutions. One mentioned was the use of spike strips, which are used to blow the tires of wrong-way vehicles moving at very low speeds. ADOT will not be utilizing them on Valley highways for a variety of reasons, including:
ADOT admits that there is no perfect solution for stopping wrong-way drivers, especially when drugs and alcohol are involved. They do want the public to be assured, however, that they are working on a solution. In 2017, ADOT began work on a project that would use existing highway sensors to detect wrong-way vehicles and alert police and other drivers. These sensors would also be placed on freeway on-ramps. While there is no exact time frame for when ADOT expects to roll out this technology, they do plan to do so in 2017.
DPS Director Frank Milstead believes that increasing local police traffic squads could also help prevent wrong-way crashes on highways. According to Milstead, wrong-way accidents are often devastating because “the closing speeds are so tremendous” as was the case in Friday’s incident.
Milstead doesn’t believe the freeway system needs a multi-million dollar sensor system. His theory is that budget cuts and shrinking police forces are contributing factors in the crashes. If local traffic enforcement officers can be used to spot and pull over impaired drivers, they’ll never even reach the highways, according to Milstead’s theory.
“We can spend millions and millions of taxpayer dollars to try and defeat this, “ Milstead said in reference to impaired, wrong-way drivers, “but at the end of the day, it’s really upon each of us to defeat the wrong-way driver.”