Wrong way crash reinforces need for interstate cable barriers

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Video shows the moments before a wrong way crash on I-80 near West Branch.

Investigators are still trying to determine why 60 year-old Leif McGowan kept driving the wrong way for at least a mile and a half. He was the only person hurt in the crash. When it happened yesterday traffic was backed up for miles. Review of DOT cameras shows McGowan's semi going the right way on I-80 east about three miles before the crash. They believe McGowan's semi plowed through the median and a cable barrier and kept driving. Data shows those cable barriers are why this type of crash is now a rarity in Iowa.

"For this to happen, I think is kind of a freak accident. It's just not something that we frequently see happen. We used to see it routinely, it was a pretty common occurrence,” said Frank Burns, an Iowa State Patrol Officer.

Video from a TV9 Viewer shows McGowan's semi driving east in the westbound lanes of I-80. He went on for at least a mile and a half before McGowan hits another semi and a car. He was the only one hurt in the accident. State Troopers said they believe McGowan's semi busted through cable barriers to start driving the wrong way. The Iowa DOT started installing cable barriers in 2003 to stop these types of crashes and data shows they are working.

A 2017 study from Iowa State University found cable barriers caused a 50% drop in fatal cross-median crashes. The barriers also caused property damage crashes to more than double, but the Iowa DOT says the lifesaving benefits are more important.

"We do see higher incidences of property damage only, where a car goes off and hits it but what it does is stop that car from going across the median," said Cathy Cutler of the Iowa DOT.

"Certainly we don't want anyone getting property damage, but if it saves a life we think it's worthwhile," said Cutler.

The study also shows the barriers save the state money. It found Iowa saves $16 dollars in costs of crashes for every $1 dollar spent on cable barriers. Just over half of Iowa's interstates have cable barriers installed. And most of them in eastern Iowa, but barriers aren't the only tool to catch wrong-way drivers in some spots.

"They actually have activation for wrong way drivers as an electronic sensor that notifies law enforcement directly so they can get out there and get that driver stopped,” said Cutler.

The DOT says cable barriers can't stop a semi at full speed and that's why the cable barriers didn't stop yesterday's crash. The Iowa State Patrol is still investigating why that driver crossed the median and didn't stop.