FOX6 Investigation: What do all nine wrong way driving incidents have in common?
There have been several wrong-way drivers on Milwaukee's freeways, who eventually end up involved in crashes. The latest involved Dawn Ewing, who drove the wrong way for at least seven miles, before hitting the vehicle driven by father of three, Brian St. Germaine, who was on his way to training at work. Like many, FOX6 has been wondering: how does this happen? How do people end up going the wrong way on the freeway? When FOX6's Brad Hicks looked for the common thread, he found something else.
On January 1, Mike Ball was driving westbound on I-94 around 35th Street, when he noticed a car coming right at him! Two 60-mile-an-hour missiles were headed right for each other on the freeway, and the wrong way driver was in the fast lane. Ball had no room to move, but at the last second, he swerved out of the way. Scrapes still scar his right front fender.
"I thought I was going to die. I literally thought, 'this is it,'" Ball said.
Seconds later, the car hit the vehicle driven by Corrie Damske head on, killing her. Police say the driver, Leopoldo Salas Gayton, was drunk, and was just the first of NINE wrong way drunk drivers caught in Milwaukee County so far in 2011.
Do these cases have anything in common, aside from the driver being drunk? Perhaps something that would explain such extreme, erratic behavior? Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke has been studying these cases for similarities.
"We're trying to find what might be the needle in the haystack that can reverse this trend, because it's growing," Sheriff Clarke said.
What FOX6 has discovered are some things that SOME of these cases have in common: drivers getting onto the freeway by going the wrong way UP an off-ramp, driving faster than the speed limit, being under the influence of alcohol, with a BAC of more than twice the legal limit, and having at least one prior OWI, but these items do not reign true for all nine cases.
Armando Rodriguez Benitez drove four miles on the freeway, without a clue he was going north in the southbound lanes of I-43. Another wrong way driver, who wanted his identity protected, drove northbound in the southbound lanes of Highway 41, hitting some construction barrels, crossing over the grass median, and heading directly into oncoming traffic.
"I don't recall any of it. Everything just went into a blackout," the driver said.
Another driver, "Alicia," we'll call her, was arrested going the wrong way on 794, and she says she still has no idea how it happened.
"I only remember having two drinks. I had absolutely no idea I was backwards on the freeway. None whatsoever," "Alica" said.
Joel Julian-Jorge zipped onto 894 from the 76th Street off-ramp, and after going two miles east on the westbound side, he crashed head on into an SUV, and nearly killed his passenger. In the case of the crash that killed Corrie Damske, the wrong way driver involved actually made a U-turn right on the interstate - a dangerous maneuver when you're going faster than the speed limit. Leaner Sanders Jr. was driving the wrong way on Highway 145, but was reported only going about 10 miles an hour, on a flat tire.
FOX6 also discovered that only half of the drivers arrested were at least twice the legal limit. When Stephen Dolan crashed through two barricades and headed up the I-94 off-ramp near Miller Park going the wrong way, he blew a .14. Also, not all of the wrong way drivers had at least one prior OWI. Justin Murphy, who is accused of making a U-turn on I-43 near Bayshore had a prior OWI, but for all of the other drivers, it was their first. It's a sobering statistic if you don't think something like this could ever happen to you.
When FOX6 investigated all of these cases, what we found that each case has in common: not one of the wrong way drivers has been convicted of driving on the wrong side of the road. It's state statute 436.15: driving the wrong way on a divided highway, and it's a municipal citation. In every closed case in Milwaukee, the charge was dismissed. The District Attorney's office makes the decision to drop the charge, and they say often, the drivers will plead guilty to the OWI charge, and the wrong way driving charge will be dropped.
"If they're willing to accept responsibility for the most serious charge, we accept that plea quickly," District Attorney John Chisholm said.
In other cases, where cars had to swerve, or worse, someone was killed after a crash, drivers face at least one felony charge, and possible prison time, so the smaller citation is dropped. The DA says they do this to keep the cost of prosecution down. However, the DA says they have a new special prosecutor just for drunk driving cases - someone whose job it is to zero-in on the details, and decide if the wrong way driver put anyone in direct danger. If they did, they're now charged with recklessly endangering safety, which is a felony charge.
In 2009 nationwide, more than 1,700 people died in wrong way crashes. The problem has gotten so bad in Arizona that officials are now testing sensors that will detect if there is a wrong way driver, and notify others on the highway with electronic signs. Highway safety experts say all you can really do if you come in contact with a wrong way driver, is flash your high beams, and try to determine what lane the driver is in. Most often, they'll be in the fast lane, because they think they're in the slow lane.