'Harsh and sudden death': How wrong-way crashes are increasing in Illinois and elsewhere

By Marni Pyke

When Robert Strobl didn't show up for his morning shift at a Naperville gas station, co-workers started to worry.

Their instincts were right: Strobl was always reliable, always punctual, his sister Cecelia Hofmann recounted.

On Strobl's way to work on Aug. 1, 2021, an SUV veered across the yellow line in Westmont and drove directly into his path, ending the 70-year-old's life, authorities said.

It was one of 2,247 wrong-way crashes in 2021 in Illinois, a 13% increase from 2020, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. As a result of those collisions, 91 people died. A total of 1,406 were injured.

Tallies for 2022 aren't available yet, but several wrong-way tragedies shook suburban residents in the last year.

On July 31, 2022, six members of the Dobosz family and a friend, Katriona Koziara, 13, were traveling west on I-90 from Rolling Meadows to Minnesota when an eastbound driver struck their van head-on. All died.

On Sept. 3, 2022, Mike Parr was working security at Septemberfest in Schaumburg when a wrong-way driver struck him as he stood alongside another vehicle. The husband and father of a recent college graduate succumbed to his injuries about 3½ weeks later.

Just a week ago, two men in their 20s were killed on I-290 near Elk Grove after an Elgin motorist drove east in the westbound lanes, causing a head-on collision with a vehicle driven by a Washington man.

Although wrong-way crashes are relatively rare, the results can be catastrophic mainly because they typically occur head-on and at high speeds, experts with the National Transportation Safety Board, Federal Highway Administration and AAA have found.

Six in 10 wrong-way collisions involve alcohol impairment, AAA reported. To that point, the McHenry County coroner concluded in November that the driver who crashed into the Dobosz family's van was intoxicated.

In Illinois, "this is still largely a behavioral driving issue," IDOT spokeswoman Maria Castaneda explained.

"About two out of three (wrong-way) occurrences involve an impaired driver. Roughly a third of all traffic fatalities involve an impaired driver in Illinois. Drivers are urged to pay close attention and remain focused and alert when driving."

The NTSB notes that 9% of wrong-way drivers had convictions for driving under the influence of alcohol in the three years prior to their offense. The agency and AAA recommend that states consider requiring ignition interlock devices for convicted offenders. The devices require a breath sample showing a driver is sober to start the engine.

Drivers older than 70 also are at higher risk, representing 15% of those involved in fatal wrong-way crashes, the NTSB said.

Connecticut legislators' work on engineering solutions took on extra urgency after a state lawmaker was killed by a wrong-way driver in early January. Some countermeasures include more visible "Do Not Enter" signs and flashing lights that kick in if someone goes the wrong way on highway ramps, Pluribus News reported, citing federal data that U.S. fatal wrong-way crashes spiked from 244 in 2010 to 407 in 2020.

Cecelia Hofmann remembers pickup baseball games with her only brother, summer picnics and celebrations around the Christmas tree.

Now she has troubling visions of an oncoming car veering into her path and outrage over Strobl's unnecessary demise. The other driver in the crash was charged with aggravated DUI causing death.

"I am deeply saddened, emotionally wounded and mentally haunted by his sudden and harsh death," said Hofmann, who works with the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists.

One more thing

How should you react if another driver is speeding head-on toward your vehicle?

"If you see a wrong-way driver, cautiously move to the right shoulder," AAA spokeswoman Molly Hart said. "Avoid slamming on the brakes, and call 911."

And if you end up traveling in the wrong direction?

"Pull to the right and stop. Then, try to turn around safely - if that's a possibility," Hart said. "If you cannot turn around, call the police and ask for help."

You should know

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He's awaiting delivery of a 2023 Chevrolet Bolt, but "I'd like to see what other EVs the automakers have planned for the near future. I'm tired of seeing SUVs and trucks and hope that they go back to sedans that have some style to them," Pontikes wrote.

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Federal and state data show an increase in wrong-way crashes such as this fatal collision on Route 53 in Rolling Meadows in July 2016. Courtesy of ABC 7
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