Wrong-way crashes killed over 100 Floridians last year

FHP, FDOT, nonprofit group work to reduce wrong-way crashes

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Deadly encounters are claiming lives on Florida's roadways.

Wrong-way driving caused crashes that killed more than 100 people in the state last year -- most were head-on.

The Jacksonville area, along with other parts of the state, has been plagued with problems. There were more than a dozen fatal crashes in Northeast Florida in 2015.

Just last month, a local grandfather and military veteran was killed on his way home from work.

Many of Florida's wrong-way crashes have made headlines across the country. In 2014, four University of South Florida students were killed when a car hit them from the opposite direction on a Tampa highway. The driver also died. Another motorist caught the fiery crash on camera and could be heard in the video shrieking when the cars collided.

Four people were killed in December by a wrong-way driver on I-95 in Miami Gardens. They had just left the airport. The driver also died at the scene.

Last trip home

One of the first fatal wrong-way crashes of 2016 was on Jacksonville's Southside, on I-295 near I-95.

Wallace "Wally" Beale, 69, was driving home from work around 4 a.m. on Jan. 4.

"He had been in Ocala that evening doing an organ procurement," his daughter, Ashley Beale Galbraith, said.

She said his black Honda Civic collided with another black Honda Civic at the highest point of the highway.

"Right at the crest of that hill, and he never saw (the other car)," she said. "I mean, he had no time to react at all."

WATCH: Wrong-way crashes Part 2

Beale, a grandfather who served in the Navy in Vietnam and spent his life working with organ procurement, was rushed to UF Health Hospital in Springfield. He held on for four days in the hospital, but took a turn for the worst after the second day.

After doctors said he had no chance for recovery, Beale's family took him off life support.

"Friday was the most difficult day of my life," his daughter said. "I had to make the decision because my stepmom was too devastated."

Florida Highway Patrol investigators identified the other driver as 28-year-old William Uhrmann. He was critically injured in the crash, but survived. Recently, his mother made a GoFundMe page to pay for his medical bills and legal fees. So far, the page has received more than $1,000 in donations. It makes no mention of what happened to Beale.

Investigators are still waiting on toxicology results, but said they suspect Uhrmann was using drugs and alcohol. So far, no criminal charges have been filed, but the investigation could take months.

Uhrmann's license was valid at the time, but his driving history shows his license was suspended from 2011 to 2013 after he failed to pay a speeding ticket.

"It's stabbed us in the heart," Galbraith said about her father's death. "We've gone through anger. We've gone through denial. We've gone through, 'This is not real, this is still a nightmare, this isn't happening.'"

Drunk and distracted

State troopers said wrong-way driving is a huge problem in Florida.

FHP records show more than 1,568 wrong-way crashes statewide in 2015. Almost all the crashes involved injuries and 92 were deadly. Many of the deadly crashes involved multiple fatalities.

South Florida and the Tampa area have seen the most crashes, while Northeast Florida comes in third on the list of most wrong-way crashes.

Nearly half of the crashes involved drugs or alcohol, according to crash reports. Distracted driving is also a factor in many.

Officials with the Florida Highway Patrol and Department of Transportation said they've made preventing these crashes their top priority.

"If we can raise some awareness and stop the wrong-way driving or the intoxicated drivers, we can cut down on these fatalities, then it benefits everyone," said Trooper Brent Gump of FHP Troop G. "That's why we're out there."

MORE: NTSB Special Report on Wrong-Way Driving | 5 Tips For Wrong-Way Driver Encounters

Gump said that he and two other troopers were positioned on Philips Highway in Jacksonville, near State Road 202, when they noticed a vehicle turn into oncoming traffic.

They quickly activated their lights and sirens, blocked traffic and stopped the driver. The man was arrested and charged with driving under the influence.

Was their act lifesaving?

"I'd like to think so," Gump said.

2 drunk 2 care

On Nov. 17, 2014, two college students were returning home on South Florida's Sawgrass Expressway in Coral Springs. Marisa Catronio and Kaitlyn Ferrante, both 21 years old, were about a half-mile from their exit.

Little did the best friends know that they were on a collision course with a wrong-way driver.

Numerous witnesses called 911 to report a wrong-way driver reaching speeds over 100 mph. The driver, identified as 20-year-old Kayla Mendoza, appeared to have entered an exit ramp for the highway several miles earlier.

Investigators determined she had been at a bar with friends, and although underage, was drinking alcohol. Her driver's license was suspended.

At the top of a hill, just above the high school from which Catronio and Ferrante graduated, the cars crashed head-on.

Marisa Catronio's father, Gary Catronio, remembers the morning vividly.

He said he knew something was wrong when his daughter didn't come home for her 2 a.m. curfew. Gary Catronio's wife woke him up at 2:11 a.m.

After hearing about the crash from friends, Catronio and his family members rushed to the scene, which was just a few miles away from his home. There, troopers told him his daughter's red Toyota Camry was involved.

"How bad could it be?" the father thought. "She has a broken leg? A broken arm?"

State troopers escorted him to the hospital. He and other family members waited for news for hours.

"Officers came out with the sergeant and then showed me a picture of Marisa's license and said, 'We regret to inform you, your daughter did not make it,'” he said. “All I could remember was I dropped to the ground in disbelief, screaming, 'My daughter is gone!'"

Ferrante, a nursing student, died days later.

Mendoza, the wrong-way driver who described herself on social media as the "pothead princess" was badly injured, but survived.

Troopers discovered that she tweeted "2 drunk 2 care" hours before the crash. Her social media accounts showed several videos of her smoking marijuana.

She was arrested for DUI manslaughter months later, taken to jail in an ambulance and brought in on a stretcher.

She was charged after toxicology test showed her blood alcohol at 0.15, nearly twice the legal limit. She also had marijuana in her system.

Mendoza apologized to the young women's families at her July 2015 sentencing hearing, but it was too late.

"Can I forgive her for what she did? I really can't," Gary Catronio said. "I mean, she took my daughter's life, and it is -- to me -- it is murder. I feel my daughter was killed."

Mendoza is now serving a 24-year prison sentence.

Marisa's Way

Catronio has devoted the rest of his life to preventing tragedies like his daughter's.

He formed a nonprofit called Marisa's Way, and with the help of dedicated family members, friends and volunteers, the organization has come up with ideas to cut down on wrong-way crashes. He came up with the idea for the charity, with encouragement from his brother, the morning after his daughter died.

One idea the group brainstormed is plastic poles for exit ramps that pop out of the pavement when a wrong-way vehicle is detected.

"So now they are coming up the road the wrong way, and our device is going to trigger," Gary Catronio explained, as he used a working model in the charity's warehouse. "They see this. It is a better visual. They see that, if they don't see them and they hit them, they're going to make such a ruckus under the car that maybe it will jar them to think about what happened."

He said Mike Russo, a St. Augustine engineer who's worked on a project on the New York state freeway, designed the devices.

Catronio wants to see the poles installed all over the state, along with other technology the Department of Transportation is testing.

Pilot programs

Authorities are ramping up enforcement and testing technology to stop drivers who go the opposite direction.

On South Florida's turnpike system, the state is running a pilot program that alerts dispatchers when a vehicle goes against traffic.

Sensors, manufactured and sold by a company called Tapco, set off flashing red lights on large "Wrong Way" signs and overhead billboards warn drivers of the oncoming danger. They were installed on 17 exits and offramps 14 months ago.

The devices instantly send pictures of the wrong-way vehicle to operators in the FDOT command center and dispatchers at the FHP, along with a precise location of the incident.

"There have been 23 actual bona fide wrong-way detections," said Chad Huff, a spokesman for the FDOT-operated turnpike system. "And of those 23, all but one has self-corrected."

In the 23rd case, Huff said the wrong-way driver did not turn around. He died in a crash moments later.

Huff said it's impossible to know exactly why the drivers self-corrected, but it appears the integrative technology played a part.

The pilot program costs about $400,000 for 17 exits in South Florida. The funds came from tolls collected along the turnpike.

Florida Department of Transportation traffic engineers are testing similar systems in the Panhandle and the Tampa area.

But there is no such technology in use in Northeast Florida. News4Jax asked FDOT spokesman Ron Tittle why that's the case.

"That's why we have the pilot programs, to see really what works and what is more efficient, be cost effective," Tittle said.

He said the technology could be installed in the future if the state approves the changes and can budget for it.

For now, FDOT officials are making some less-significant changes around Northeast Florida roads.

"Increasing signage, putting some reflective materials on our signs and our posts, lowering some of the signs down to 4 feet for instance," Tittle explained.

Calling for change

Galbraith wants change, no matter the cost.

"There's got to be something that our legislators and us as the public can do to stop this, because it's getting out of control," she told News4Jax.

She said she wants the man who killed her father to pay for his mistake, and she's asking state leaders to do everything possible to prevent any more tragedies.

"I don't want anybody to ever have to go through the pain and the suffering that we're having to deal with right now,” Galbraith said. “It's unfair."

She intends to meet with Catronio, who is continuing to push for anything and everything to keep drivers safe.

"It's a parent's worst nightmare to go through something like that," he said.

He's now traveling the state with the Marisa's Way campaign, raising awareness so no other families have to go through his unimaginable pain.

"It is something that is with you every day,” Catronio said. “You carry a heavy heart every day."

Catronio said he hopes to get to Northeast Florida soon, so that he can put on safety presentations. He said he believes if people realize the dangers of distracted and drunk driving, they'll think twice and save lives.
To learn more about Marisa's Way, or to get involved, visit MarisasWay.org or facebook.com/CatronioWay.

About the Author:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.