GILBERT, Ariz. – Wrong-way drivers are reported on a nearly daily basis throughout Arizona, but most of them get off the road before ever driving into another vehicle, public safety officials said.
Yet in the past six days in the Phoenix area, seven people — including an off-duty police officer — have died after their vehicles were hit by a motorist going the wrong direction on an interstate highway. The latest occurred early Sunday when a pickup truck and a passenger vehicle collided. Two people were killed, and two others were seriously injured, authorities said.
The string of three fatal accidents in less than a week is a tragic coincidence that even law enforcement officers and investigators are struggling to deal with, Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman Raul Garcia said.
"This past week and a half has weighed heavy with everyone involved," Garcia said.
In the latest crash, a pickup truck and a passenger vehicle collided in the eastbound lanes of Loop 202 San Tan Freeway in Gilbert shortly before 2 a.m. Sunday, Garcia said.
A 911 caller reported the driver heading westbound around 1:35 a.m. Several more calls followed, Garcia said. Arizona Department of Public Safety units and police from Mesa and Gilbert were trying to intercept the truck before it crashed less than 15 minutes later.
The driver and passenger in the car going the correct direction died, authorities said. The truck's driver was seriously hurt, and a passenger had injuries that weren't life-threatening. Officials have not yet released the names of anyone involved.
Investigators are still trying to determine if driver impairment was a factor, Garcia said. Meanwhile, the Department of Public Safety closed the freeway in both directions for several hours.
On Friday, three people from Indonesia died and three passengers, including a 9-year-old child, suffered serious injuries after their minivan was struck by a wrong-way driver's car on Interstate 17 in Phoenix.
The driver of the wrong-way car, a Phoenix man in his 60s, was also injured. The man, who authorities said they suspect was impaired, will likely face reckless driving charges, authorities said. Any evidence of impairment could mean criminal manslaughter charges.
Early Monday morning, an off-duty Mesa police officer, Brandon Mendoza, 32, was killed on a freeway ramp in Tempe when his car collided head-on with an SUV driven by a Phoenix man, who was later determined to have been intoxicated. The wrong-way driver in that case, Raul Silva Corona, 42, had traveled 35 miles on three freeways from Scottsdale through Phoenix to Tempe before he was killed in the crash, authorities said.
Most wrong-way incidents usually take place in the late night or early morning hours, Garcia said. Staying off the roads during those hours is one way to decrease the chance of a wrong-way encounter, he said.
In 2012, the federal National Transportation Safety Board unanimously recommended that every state require convicted drunken drivers to use ignition interlock devices, which usually require drivers to blow into a tube to prove they are not intoxicated before they can start the engine. The agency was spurred by evidence that an average of 360 people a year are killed when drivers turn the wrong way into oncoming traffic on highways.
The distance between you and an oncoming driver closes rapidly, Garcia said. So staying in a center lane in order to steer evasively is one possible strategy to avoid a head-on crash. But ultimately, there are no guarantees.
"There is no cut way," Garcia said. "You can't tell people not to drive anymore. That's not realistic."
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