Arizona transportation officials are responding to a flurry of deadly wrong-way crashes with a plan for a test project on a Phoenix freeway that includes using sensors to detect wrong-way drivers and alert authorities and other motorists.
The state Department of Transportation announced Monday the project will be conducted on a yet-to-be-determined 3- to 4-mile stretch of Interstate 17 after a months-long study conducted by two engineering firms.
Under the test project, existing traffic sensors will be modified and new ones installed to detect wrong-way vehicles to provide alerts to state troopers and to post warnings on overhead message board. Also, on-ramps’ traffic lights will stay red to keep traffic off the freeway when there’s a wrong-way vehicle.
The alerts about wrong-way drivers entering freeways would get the word to Department of Public Safety troopers than information relayed by 911 callers, ADOT said.
Faced with wrong-way drivers, troopers sometimes use their own vehicles to strike glancing blows of the errant vehicles to bring them to a stop before they hit somebody.
The flurry of wrong-way crashes in the Phoenix area included one that killed an off-duty Phoenix Fire Department dispatcher going home from work on Jan. 27. Others included two 2014 crashes that killed an off-duty Mesa police officer and a young Mesa couple.
The department’s response to those crashes and others has included the launching of the study conducted by the engineering firms as well as the state’s already completed installation of hundreds of larger and lower “wrong way” and “do not enter” signs on more than 100 freeway ramps.
The report submitted by United Civil Group Corp. and Lee Engineering LLC said steps taken to detect wrong-way drivers can help prevent only some wrong-way accidents. That’s “because there is no current technology that can solve the issue of driver impairment, whether from drugs or alcohol,” the report stated.
Approximately 65 percent of the wrong-way drivers in 245 crashes with 91 fatalities from 2000 through 2014 in Arizona were documented as impaired, compared with approximately 60 percent nationally, the report said.
“We all need to work harder to keep friends, family and strangers from driving while impaired,” Alberto Gutier, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, said in a statement released by ADOT.
In other findings, the report said wrong-way crashes are more common after dark and on weekends and that the portion of I-17 in the Phoenix area had the most wrong-way crashes in the state. The rural highway with the highest per-mile rate of wrong-way crashes was SR 89A in the Verde Valley in northeastern Yavapai County, the report said.
Also, most-wrong way drivers are males and most are between ages 16 to 35.
The department said it has begun testing detection and warning systems manufactured by private companies and that some will likely be included in the new project.