NTSB Hopes to Change a Deadly Trend

December 13, 2012 Updated Dec 13, 2012 at 10:44 PM EDT

By Rachel Elzufon

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December 13, 2012 Updated Dec 13, 2012 at 10:44 PM EDT

Cheektowaga, NY (WKBW) - The National Transportation Safety Board hopes to change a deadly trend across the country -- drivers going the wrong way, and smashing head-on into oncoming traffic.

The NTSB reports that nationwide, nearly 400 people die in wrong-way crashes each year.

22-percent of wrong-way crash are fatal. Captain Jim Speyer with the Cheektowaga Police Department explains that number is so high because wrong way crashes are "so violent and very often head-on."

Wrong way crashes has been a big problem in Western New York. At one point, the numbers were piling up at Genesee Street and Route 33.

Speyer explains "Prior to 2008 we were having an average of 50 ... Some years 25, 32, accidents per year."

In 2004, there were 24 accidents at that intersection. The number rose to 32 in 2005 and then 50 in 2006. Speyer explains this number includes wrong way and other types of accidents.

Then in 2008, the Department of Transportation put up signs and flashing lights, making the road less confusing for drivers.

Since then, numbers of plummeted. Cheektowaga police responded to just seven accidents at that intersection in 2009, two accidents in 2010 and nine accidents there in 2011. The number has spiked in 2012 to 18 crashes at Route 33 and Genesee Street.

The NTSB wants to make signs bigger and closer to eyelevel for drivers across the country.

In recent years, there have been other wrong way crashes elsewhere in Western New York -- even on the Skyway.

In July, three people died after 87-year-old Richard Hildebrand hit a car full of tourists on the 190 in Grand Island. He had been driving the wrong direction for nearly eight miles.

In January, 88-year-old Thomas Illuzi was killed while driving on the wrong side of Millersport Highway. He collided head-on with an oncoming pickup truck.

The NTSB says 15-percent of drivers in wrong way crashes are more than 70 years old.

Speyer explains "Elderly people driving aren't as sure of themselves or as observant as many younger drivers and fail to notice road markings."

Speyer says other factors include the weather and angle of the sun -- which can make signs hard to read.

However, the biggest factor is alcohol. The NTSB reports that 60-percent of wrong way drivers are suspected of being drunk.

The NTSB is also looking into sensors that sound an alarm to drivers and police if someone is driving the wrong way on the road.

It also wants to change the interchange design, to eliminate fast lane exits and parallel entrances and exits.