Fatal Wrong-Way Crash on I-83 May Have Been Caused by Detour Confusion

A wrong-way collision between a tractor-trailer and another driver on Monday caused a fatality. Per multiple news reports, the truck was traveling the wrong way on southbound I-83 when it struck 47-year-old Hendry Nunez. Mr. Nunez’s car rolled over the guardrail and down an embankment, landing against a tree. He died at the scene.

According to ABC 27, “the southbound I-83 ramp that connects Market Street was closed off and that a detour is currently in place due to maintenance.” Based on this traffic cam video from WGAL, this particular stretch of I-83 is a bit of a blind corner, meaning it’s possible Mr. Nunez and the semi-truck driver would not have seen each other until it was too late. Given the hour of the collision – around 3:00am – it would have been dark at the time, too.

This isn’t the first collision on this stretch of I-83 this year; it’s not even the first crash this month. On October 4, PennLive reported that the northbound lanes were shut down between exit 19 and exit 21A – the same exact stretch of road – because of a crash that morning involving multiple vehicles.

Construction zones always make travel more dangerous

The I-83 widening project is massive, and it will take years to complete. Just look at this overview of the project, taken from its website:

Fatal Wrong-Way Crash on I-83 May Have Been Caused by Detour Confusion

While this is necessary work given the number of residents and commuters – there are almost 45,000 people living in the city of York, PA and close to half a million in the County – long-scale projects like these can pose risks.

You’re fighting procedural memory

It appears Monday’s fatal collision is the result of the big rig entering the wrong way on ramp. This type of confusion is common: a driver is used to entering a roadway from one direction, and it becomes a type of “muscle memory” to make that same maneuver every time. They call it highway hypnosis: “a lost sense of time while driving.” If you’ve ever gotten to your end point and could not remember how you got there, you probably experienced this for yourself.

When road crews are working, however, they may close off or open ramps, entrances, and exits at any time, based on what the work order is. All it takes is one driver to miss a sign and the next thing you know, there’s a head-on crash.

Note, too, that long-term construction can alter that procedural memory. If you drive the same stretch of work zone every day, eventually your brain will incorporate the changes. In other words, as any PA Turnpike driver can tell you, you get used to it.

Signage may not be clear

Even when drivers are paying close attention, it can be easy to miss road signs. If they’re set back too far or don’t reflect light properly, a driver can miss important directions. If the roadwork is ongoing and the signs remain in the same place for a long time, nearby landscaping (trees, grasses, bushes) can obscure the signs as well.

What about signs that tell drivers to slow down? As it turns out, electronic signs warning of work zone dangers are distracting, and they may be causing more harm than good. A 2022 study found that:

negatively framed messages seize too much attention (i.e., are too salient), interfering with drivers’ ability to respond to changes in traffic conditions. Supporting this explanation, we found that displaying a higher fatality count (i.e., a plausibly more attention-grabbing statistic) causes more crashes than displaying a small one, that fatality messages are more harmful when displayed on more complex road segments, that fatality messages increase multi-vehicle crashes (but not single-vehicle crashes), and that the impact is largest close to [dynamic message signs] DMSs and decreases over longer distances.

There are too many moving parts and people

The average work zone has at least one crew working on it at any given time and is likely to have multiple vehicles entering and existing the area. Between the cattle shoots and jersey barriers, plus the reduced speed and lane changes, these additional heavy-duty trucks only add to the confusion. The greatest risk is to the workers themselves, but car accidents between travelers are common.

All of this “visual noise” can be distracting, even to the most conscientious driver. Our brains simply cannot move from task to task that quickly.

Visibility may be poor, even with overhead lights

Monday’s fatal accident happened around 3:00am. A lot of roadwork is done at night so that it doesn’t affect residents’ daily commute and travel. Still, even with overhead lights, visibility can be low. The U.S. Department of Transportation (US DOT) reports that “the nighttime fatality rate is three times the daytime rate because only 25 percent of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) occur at night. At nighttime, vehicles traveling at higher speeds may not have the ability to stop once a hazard or change in the road ahead becomes visible by the headlights.”

Safe practices for traveling in York, PA work zones

The best way to avoid a work zone accident is to avoid the work zone entirely. We understand, however, that traveling down I-83 may be unavoidable. Given what we know about the length of the widening project, there are some things you should do to help protect yourself.

  1. Buckle up. In the event of a crash, wearing your seat belt may be the difference between life and death.
  2. Stick to the right lane. Lane changes are common in work zones. Stay as far to the right as possible to reduce your risk of error.
  3. Keep your eyes on the road. Set your music preferences before you leave and check the map on your GPS before you start traveling. This should allow you to avoid those two distractions while you’re in the construction area.
  4. Factor extra time into your travel. Roadwork almost always means that the speed limit will drop. Anticipate this by starting to slow down before you enter the work zone, and stick to the lane you’re in. Remember, too, that trucks have very large blind spots, and the narrow lanes in work areas may prevent them from being able to see you.

KBG Injury Law represents folks who have suffered injuries in vehicle crashes and handles complex claims stemming from fatal collisions. To learn more about our services, or for a free case review, please call or contact our York, PA accident attorneys today. We maintain additional offices in Lancaster, Harrisburg, Hanover, and Gettysburg, and proudly serve clients throughout South Central Pennsylvania.