Number of wrong-way crashes, DUIs increasing across California

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A wrong-way crash in San Francisco that killed four people on Thursday is part of a troubling trend, according to California Highway Patrol.

Amid spiking arrest rates for driving under the influence, CHP is considering new ways to combat both DUI crashes and wrong-way drivers. And they’re deeply intertwined: So far in 2019, CHP has counted 25 wrong-way collisions across the Bay Area’s nine counties, said spokesperson John Fransen, 18 of which involved a DUI driver.

“Across the board, it’s affecting motorists and our own officers,” Fransen said.

Early Thursday morning, 34-year-old Hillsborough resident Emilie Ross drove her Volkswagen head-on into a taxi cab as she traveled the wrong way on northbound Highway 101 near Candlestick Point, authorities said. All three occupants of the taxi were killed, including its driver, Ahmed Berkant, 42, of San Mateo, and married couple Mary Miller, 57, of Chicago, and Judson Bergman, 62, of Barrington, Ill.

That’s not an unusual outcome: Of the 25 wrong-way collisions so far this year, 10 were fatal, resulting in 19 deaths, CHP said.

DUI arrests, meanwhile, are up 20 percent this year, with CHP officers having arrested 7,7796 people on suspicion of driving while intoxicated so far in 2019 as compared to 6,482 at this time last year.

Ross, officers said yesterday, was “potentially impaired,” but an investigation has yet to confirm that. Very little is publicly known about Ross. She volunteered with the anti-homelessness organization LifeMoves, the group confirmed Friday, and someone with the same name has an 2012 illegal U-turn conviction in San Mateo County.

Although many factors are to blame for the increase in driving under the influence, Fransen said, the thriving economy underpins the problem. Rather than just having one beer, people can afford to have two or three — and think it’s still okay to drive home after.

“There’s no real excuse for that,” Fransen said. “We live in an era with Uber, Lyft, and a great public transportation system.”

To combat the increase, CHP has partnered with Caltrans to explore more ways to alert wrong-way drivers of their mistake. In addition to signs, reflectors along highways now flash red to those going the wrong way, but there could be additional safety guards, Fransen said.

The agency also works directly with Alcoholic Beverage Control to reconstruct the hours before a DUI crash. In cases where a person appears to have been over-served at an establishment, CHP coordinates with ABC to inquire whether the establishment could see consequences.

Mainly, though, preventing the rise of deadly collisions comes down to community watchdogs, Fransen said. On Thursday, the agency received calls about a driver going the wrong way on 101 just a few minutes before officers encountered the crash.

Word of the deaths rippled out nationwide, as taxicab passenger Bergman ran the publicly traded financial services firm Envestnet out of Chicago, according to the Chicago Tribune. Miller, meanwhile, had founded investment advice firm Hanover Hill Wealth Advisors in 2012.

Between them, they left seven children, the Tribune said.

For CHP, too, DUI deaths are personal: In 2017, rookie officer Andrew Camilleri Sr. was killed on Christmas Day when a suspected drunk driver slammed into his patrol call.

If you see a wrong-way driver, drive defensively until you can pull over and out of harm’s way, Fransen said. And then call 911.

“Ultimately, call these DUI drivers or wrong-way drivers in, because we can get our units in position to try to stop them,” Fransen said.

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