The wrong-way driver who died in a crash on Interstate 40 Monday night was a Rockingham County man with dementia who had just been reported missing, authorities said.
The N.C. Highway Patrol said that Billy Ray Willard, 78, of Stoneville, was driving a 1988 Ford Bronco east on westbound I-40 shortly after sunset on Monday. He was in Winston-Salem when his vehicle collided head-on with a Mazda SUV driven by a Florida man.
Willard died of his injuries at the scene of the crash, which occurred about 6:12 p.m.
The driver of the Mazda was identified as Randall Scott Pennington of Palm Beach, Fla. Pennington and a passenger in his vehicle, Darla Pennington, were taken to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center for treatment of non-life-threatening injuries.
Lt. Kevin Suthard of the Rockingham County Sheriff's Office said that deputies responded to a house between Stoneville and Eden about 5:52 p.m. Monday to talk with a family member of Willard's who reported him missing.
Suthard said Willard had last been seen at 9:30 a.m. Monday and was supposed to be going to the bank. The family became concerned when he did not return.
The Forsyth County Sheriff's Office said that the missing person report on Willard came out about 20 minutes after the first county deputy had arrived at the wreck scene. That report described Willard as suffering from dementia.
Witnesses said that before the collision, Willard's Bronco, without headlights on, was traveling slowly east on westbound I-40.
The Bronco was in the fast lane of westbound I-40. The freeway has three westbound lanes at that point.
One witness, who asked that her name not be used, said that she saw cars swerving to avoid the Bronco as it made its way east. The woman said she called 911 and was told that a deputy was on his way.
The same witness said that, from talking with others in her neighborhood, she learned that the Bronco had apparently gotten onto I-40 from Lewisville-Clemmons Road off-ramp — the very next exit westbound — and that other drivers waved and blew their horns in an effort to get the driver's attention.
Debbie Flinchum, who was driving west in the right lane and getting ready to exit at Lewisville-Clemmons Road, said that when she saw the Bronco, there were not a great many cars on that stretch of the highway, although it was rush hour.
The highway quickly jammed with stopped cars in all three lanes after the collision, and law enforcement officers scrambled to reroute westbound I-40 traffic.