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Vast Majority Of Wrong-Way Drivers Are Impaired, Now A Felony In Illinois, IDOT Says

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Family, friends and police from around the Midwest will begin saying goodbye to Illinois State Police Trooper Gerald Ellis Thursday. Ellis died after a driver going the wrong way crashed head on into him.

Overall, wrong-way accidents are rare in Illinois, but they are often deadly.

CBS 2's Tara Molina was told they're difficult to prevent because they don't happen in concentrated areas. She looked at a map of wrong-way crash data reported in just Cook County in 2018. While the crashes didn't happen in one specific area, a few were within a mile of each other.

There were 30 in Cook County, 95 statewide, and 11 were fatal.

"What we've seen over the years is they tend to happen in spurts for whatever reason," said Guy Tridgell with the Illinois Department of Transportation.

He said they have found about 60 percent of the wrong-way crashes involve an impaired driver, with most happening late at night or early in the morning.

"The vast majority of these drivers are impaired," he said. "Under the influence of drugs or alcohol."

That's exactly what a brand new state law focuses on. As of January 1 drunk driving the wrong way on Illinois roads became a felony. It's the first of its kind in the country.

"It's an aggravating factor, if while intoxicated you find yourself driving the wrong way," said State Rep. Mike Zalewski, who spearheaded the law. He's pushing for more to target the problem.

"I think there's a combination of things we can learn from other states and do on our own to make our roads safer," he said.

Of the drivers behind the wrong way crashes in the past week that took the lives of Illinois State Police Trooper Gerald Ellis and Dr. Arshad Mohammed both wrong-way drivers have have histories of driving under the influence.

Their toxicology reports are pending.

"We've looked at areas that we think might be more susceptible to people trying to get onto the expressway and drive in the wrong direction," Tridgell said.

IDOT has invested $7 million across the state to improve safety, adding signs like, reflective strips and pavement markers.

But right now, the rest, is up to the people who get behind the wheel.

Departments across the country are testing different ways to target this issue like detection systems, lights and alarms that warn drivers about to enter the road the wrong way.

CBS 2 asked if any of that is being implemented here. Right now, the answer is no.

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