It’s a driver’s deadly nightmare.
On a dark highway, amid a sea of taillights, a pair of oncoming headlights suddenly flashes into view.
What happens next is all too familiar in South Florida — a violent crash, loss of life, tied-up roads, a complicated investigation and a lengthy cleanup. A slew of fatal wrong-way crashes has left drivers reeling, families broken and law enforcement searching for new technology to halt the deadly collisions.
The 911 calls started coming in at 12:44 a.m. on Dec. 30.
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“On I-95... a vehicle going southbound in northbound express lanes,” dispatch announced.
By 12:59: “It’s confirmed. We have it on camera.”
By 1:19 a.m. they identified the car, a white pickup truck.
The driver of the Ford pickup, a 23-year-old chef named Alexandra Lefler, slammed into a Hyundai Sonata, killing herself and the Sonata’s four passengers. Two others were hospitalized with injuries.
Then, last weekend, another wrong-way tragedy played out on a South Florida road. On Interstate 75 near Sheridan Street in West Broward, a driver died after crashing into an SUV, injuring the three people inside.
Then there was a crash in 2013 that made headlines across the country. Kayla Mendoza, then underage, tweeted “2 drunk 2 care” before running a red light and smashing into a car, killing the two best friends inside. Mendoza is serving 24 years in prison.
Experts say the common cause for these uncommon crashes is usually the driver, not the road design. A 2015 report showed 45 percent of drivers in wrong-way crashes are intoxicated.
That hasn’t stopped the state from coming up with high-tech ways such as signs with radar to draw a wrong-way driver’s attention to a potential error. Still, drivers are managing to circumvent the safety tools, and when they do, the results are often deadly.
Dr. Carl Schulman, a UHealth trauma surgeon at Ryder Trauma Center in Miami, said victims of wrong-way crashes often suffer chest and internal injuries due to the force of motion in the cars.
“A car is really well-designed to absorb straight-on crashes,” he said. “The more angular the direction of the impact the more likely the occupant is going to suffer injuries.”
Wrong-way crashes are the perfect storm of destructive forces. Two cars ramming into each other at top speed causes a tremendous amount of damage compared to any other type of crash, Schulman said.
“If you’re trying to drive toward it and drive around it and it hits you, you’ll be in much worse condition,” he said. “Pull over to the road and stop. Don’t try to go around it.”
Although wrong-way crashes are on the decline on Miami-Dade roads (from a peak of 181 in 2014 to 168 in 2015) and in Broward (from 167 in 2012 to 112 in 2015), the impact they leave is more than crushed metal on the highway.
Gary Catronio has become a face of these accidents after his daughter Marisa and her friend Katie were killed in a wrong-way crash mere miles from her home in the Mendoza case.
That night, Catronio knew something was wrong when he checked his find-your-phone app. First, it showed his daughter was on the Sawgrass Expressway in West Broward, almost at the exit home. He checked later and the dot was still in the same place.
Catronio sped to the exit closest to the dot on a tip from an emergency worker friend that there was a big accident in the area. Officers stopped him there.
“Just tell me the car out there doesn’t have hearts on the license plate and I’ll leave,” he pleaded.
After four hours of silence, two highway patrol troopers broke the news.
“I dropped,” Catronio said.
More than two years later, he has done his best to find his footing. Catronio and his wife dedicate their spare time to being the voice for wrong-way crash victims. He started a foundation — Marisa’s Way — that lobbies for new legislation, gives scholarships for new ideas to stop crashes and hosts benefit concerts and poker tournaments.
Catronio’s organization leads educational seminars at schools to show kids the impact — physically and emotionally — of driving drunk or distracted.
“That’s what we’re dedicated to — saving lives,” he said.
He picked the right demographic.
The most common age range for wrong-way crashes is 16 to 24, and also people older than 65, according to an April report by the Florida Department of Transportation.
FDOT studied wrong-way crashes in Florida from 2009 to 2013. The agency found 280 crashes happened on Florida’s highways, with 400 injuries and 75 deaths.
According to the report, the average wrong-way driver is impaired, driving late at night or early in the morning on a weekend and entering an exit ramp. They’re usually in an urban area.
Almost half of drivers were DUI at the time of a crash, which is more than 16 times the alcohol or drug involvement for all Florida crashes.
That information isn’t normally available in initial police reports, said Jose Sanchez, a spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol, because finding out if a driver was impaired isn’t as easy as it looks on TV.
“This is a process. This is not CSI,” he said. “In one hour they close the case and they're sitting in the courtroom.”
If the crash killed someone, or if the driver is too injured to do a breath test, officers must draw blood and send it to a lab for tests. That can take from four weeks to three months, Sanchez said.
In October 2014, FDOT launched a $400,000 statewide pilot program to experiment with solutions. For at least the next two to three years, sections of Florida’s Turnpike will feature varying bids for the attention of a wrong-way driver.
It’s all about getting inside a driver’s “cone of vision,” said Raj Ponnaluri, a state arterial management systems engineer for the Florida Department of Transportation in Tallahassee.
A drunk driver, as many wrong-way drivers are, has a smaller cone of vision than someone sober. So road engineers came up with a combination of markers to alert drivers to impending error.
“The whole idea is for a period of time people see them and it gets into the human mind and they think, ‘Hmm, something is different about this place,’” he said.
In Miami-Dade, six interchanges and 10 ramps on the turnpike have been equipped since late 2014 with large, red, rectangular “wrong way” signs. They’re solar powered and send out radar signals from both sides of the sign.
If the radar detects a car is traveling the wrong direction, the LED lights on the sign will flash red and the device will take a series of five pictures of the car. It sends the pictures to FHP dispatch and the traffic management center for confirmation.
“No one is watching the tag numbers. We don’t retain any pictures or videos or anything,” Ponnaluri said.
So far, South Florida’s system has caught 23 drivers. All but one turned themselves around without a crash, said Chad Huff, spokesman for Florida’s Turnpike. The single fatality came from a November crash, which wasn’t prevented, even though the technology worked as planned.
In Tampa and St. Petersburg, the red “wrong way” signs have flat strobe lights on the top and bottom that flash when radar detects a wrong-way vehicle. The technology is similar to the strobe lights on pedestrian crossing signs in heavily trafficked areas of St. Petersburg.
In the Panhandle, FDOT is experimenting with long, reflective strips on the road, like stop bars. The strips reflect white, unless a driver is heading the wrong way, in which case they’re bright red. The strips are solar-powered, so they can keep flashing at night.
Another popular idea: the installation of spike strips on exit ramps — a row of metal teeth slanted to bite the tires of wrong-way drivers and offer only a mild bump to drivers heading in the right direction.
But there are good reasons spike strips don’t criss-cross exit ramps. The spikes can catch trash, propping them open for indiscriminate tire-slashing.
Even accounting for perfectly clean, cared-for spikes, emergency technicians sometimes must use the exit ramps to enter a highway to get to crime scenes and accidents faster.
FHP’s Sanchez said the best solutions are the simplest. Be alert. Use common sense. Don’t drive impaired.
“If you’re traveling and you see the signs facing the other direction, hello, there’s your sign,” he said. “If you see red reflectors on the road instead of white, hello, there’s your sign.”
Exact location of new wrong-way signs:
The ramps that received countermeasures on the turnpike’s Homestead Extension:
Exit 29 SB NW 41st Street
Exit 29 NB NW 41st Street
Exit 31 NW 74th Street
Exit 34 NW 106th Street
Exit 35 SB Okeechobee Road
Exit 35 NB Okeechobee Road
Exit 43 SB NW 57th Ave / Red Road
Exit 43 NB NW 57th Ave / Red Road
Exit 47 SB University Drive
Exit 47 NB University Drive
By the Numbers:
Wrong-way crashes in Miami-Dade
Wrong-way crash injuries in Miami-Dade
Wrong-way crash fatalities in Miami-Dade