Officials: Wrong-way driving has become an 'epidemic' throughout Wisconsin

Lt. Nate Clarke

MILWAUKEE -- Law enforcement in southeast Wisconsin talked at length on Tuesday, Aug. 27 about their efforts to prevent wrong-way driving incidents in the state -- a problem authorities called an "epidemic."

"Wrong-way drivers typically, when they crash, cause horrific vehicle crashes out there resulting in fatalities, serious property damage, or personal injury events," said Lt. Nate Clarke of the Wisconsin State Patrol.

Officials noted more than 300 wrong-way driving incidents in Milwaukee County in the last three years. Officials with the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office said deputies intercepted 56 of those wrong-way drivers since 2016. Of those, 50 drivers were impaired by alcohol or drugs. The other six were simply confused, officials said.

Officials noted 15 wrong-way driver incidents in 2019 alone. All of them were impaired -- and had a median blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .15 -- or nearly two times the legal limit.

"Wisconsin is a top five state in the nation in terms of OWI, operating while intoxicated," said Andy Bergholz of TAPCO.

Inspector Brian Barkow of the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office said while wrong-way driver incidents can happen at all hours of the day, 78% of them happen between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m. That concentration gets even higher between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. Barkow also mentioned wrong-way driver incidents are two times more likely to happen on a weekend, versus a weekday.

Officials said the issue of wrong-way driving is not only an enforcement issue, but also an engineering issue, with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation working closely with local companies like TAPCO to create signage and other systems to prevent wrong-way driving incidents.

"So we're doing that with some strobing devices, and other messaging type things, to get their attention, get them to realize they're going in the wrong direction, turn around, and get them back off the system," Lt. Clarke said.

There are 20 detector systems in Milwaukee County -- none anywhere else in the state. WisDOT and law enforcement officials said they were eager to put more of these devices in Milwaukee County before moving beyond county lines.