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All over the country, states are looking for ways to reverse the trend, often relying on new technology to do so.
The kick-off to Connecticut’s legislative session this year became suddenly sullen when Rep. Quentin Williams, a 39-year-old from Middleton who everybody knew as “Q,” was hit by a wrong-way driver as he drove home from the governor’s inauguration. His vehicle was “fully engulfed in flames,” according to police. Both he and the driver of the other car died at the scene.
Five months later, Gov. Ned Lamont signed a law requiring the state transportation agency to install wrong-way driving alert systems on at least 120 highway exit ramps. Williams’ colleagues said the measure came in response to his death and the rising number of fatal wrong-way crashes in the state.
The number of wrong-way crashes grew every year in Connecticut from 2020 to 2023, going from two a year to 27 in that span.
“It is shocking how quickly the number of wrong-way driving incidents has accelerated over these last couple of years, and we need to do more to prevent them,” Lamont said in a statement announcing he had signed the law.
“Reversing this trend requires a comprehensive approach that not only involves infrastructure upgrades using advanced technology, but also requires a heightened awareness by drivers every single time they are entering a highway. This is an issue that we cannot take lightly, and we must continue researching new and emerging methods of preventing wrong-way driving incidents,” he said.
The problem goes well beyond Connecticut. In fact, even before dangerous driving surged during the pandemic, the number of wrong-way deaths was increasing. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety estimated that 500 people a year died in those types of collisions on divided highways between 2015 and 2018, up from 375 annual deaths in the five previous years. (On highways where a median separates different directions of traffic, it is especially difficult for a driver to return to the correct lane.) And wrong-way crashes are particularly deadly, because they involve two or more vehicles traveling at high speeds smashing into each other.
That’s prompted states all over the country to look for ways to reverse the trend, often relying on new technology to do so.
Florida, for example, has installed wrong-way detectors on 164 freeway ramps and plans to put up more at other dangerous locations, said Michael Williams, the deputy communications director for the Florida Department of Transportation.
“A vehicle traveling the opposite way will trigger the system, which in turn will flash red beacons to warn the driver,” he said. “If the driver continues in the wrong direction, the system will instantly send alerts to FDOT traffic managers and law enforcement. At the same time, a wrong-way driver alert will appear on electronic messaging boards along the interstate to warn other motorists.”
Those devices come on top of more wrong-way signage, roadway reflectors and pavement markings on the off-ramps, he said.
Those types of road treatments have become more prevalent, as components have become more widely available. Solar panels, LED lighting and remote cameras have all become more common—and cheaper—in recent years.
There have been some hiccups, though. Automatic sensors have been set off by people mowing along the highway. Clouds, exhaust plumes, shadows and even reflections of wet pavement have prompted false alarms. But those false calls can be reduced by using thermal cameras, an approach Arizona pioneered.
“I want to stress that thermal cameras can’t stop someone from being a wrong-way driver. But they are a big part of our efforts to reduce the risks associated with often-impaired wrong-way drivers,” Dallas Hammit, then the Arizona Department of Transportation’s state engineer and deputy director for transportation, said at the conclusion of a study on the effectiveness of the devices in 2020.
Arizona recorded 109 incidents of wrong-way driving on a stretch of Interstate 17 during a two-year pilot program to test the cameras and other deterrents for wrong-way drivers. The cameras detected three times as many incidents as were reported through 911 calls. More importantly, 88% of wrong-way drivers turned around on the ramps.
California also found that two-way reflective markings decreased the number of wrong-way drivers by 44% in a San Diego study. The pavement markers appear white or yellow to right-way drivers but red to drivers going the wrong way.
Confusing road design may play a role in wrong-way driving, but bigger issues are also at play. The AAA Foundation determined that wrong-way drivers tended to be older, driving alone and under the influence of alcohol.
It’s “impaired driving,” said Josh Morgan, a spokesperson for the Connecticut Department of Transportation. “Flat-out, plain-as-day, virtually all drivers who are causing wrong-way crashes are impaired.”
In the crash that killed Williams, the state lawmaker, both Williams and the wrong-way driver were legally drunk.
Morgan said Connecticut installed its first flashing indicators on a highway ramp in 2020 at a location that was confusing for motorists and was near a lot of bars, restaurants and hotels. The state expanded those efforts a year ago, when officials started seeing a spike in the number of crashes and fatalities in 2022.
Connecticut is trying a variety of approaches, including installing the reflective pavement markings that look red to wrong-way drivers. The agency, though, is testing them to see how well they hold up to snow plows in winter. The state has also installed red reflective tape on the metal guardrails along ramps. “We’re really trying to put as much red on the off-ramps, so people see red if they’re going the wrong way. People get that message,” Morgan said.
In conversations with transportation engineers from other states and with state police, the leaders of the Connecticut DOT heard repeatedly that “seconds matter” when it comes to stopping wrong-way drivers. So the agency switched vendors and upgraded its technology to get signs and equipment that automatically alert the DOT and the nearest state police barrack when a driver goes the wrong way onto a highway.
“Perhaps there could be a real-time intervention with a trooper heading out there and being able to stop that wrong-way driver before they crash and kill themselves or somebody else,” Morgan explained.
The legislation that Lamont signed recently also calls for the University of Connecticut to explore the possibility of developing “reverse rumble strips,” similar to the grooves that warn drivers of a stop ahead or that they crossed a center line on a highway. But the new strips would only produce vibrations if the driver heads in the wrong direction.
Meanwhile, the state is trying other ways to emphasize the need for safer driving. Residents will have to watch a safety video, with updates in state laws, every other time they renew their driver’s licenses. The state has also started requiring interlock ignitions on people who are caught driving drunk.
The state DOT is running ads on YouTube, social media sites and streaming devices laying out the consequences of impaired driving as well. Some ads show images of cars wrecked in wrong-way accidents. One video, shot in Connecticut, shows a driver weaving while speeding the wrong way down an interstate. The ad notes that wrong-way driving deaths have increased by 500% in the state. The driving scene disappears in the glare of oncoming headlights. “One wrong move,” a narrator warns, “may be your last.
“We’ll do education. We’ll do engineering,” Morgan said. “But people getting behind the wheel when they’re impaired is what is really driving this increase in crashes. The biggest thing to stop these from happening, will be people driving sober.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.