Of all the road signs we encounter, the makeshift memorials in the median are perhaps the most powerful because of the mark from spots where people who traveled before us, lost their lives.
Tommy Davila remembers a night just a few days before Christmas 2014, “We were asleep and Donna got the phone call”. His wife, Donna Davila, received terrible news in that call, “And at that point my whole world just came crumbling down," he said.
The niece the Davila’s had raised as their own daughter was gone. And so was her unborn baby girl, “We felt the kicks in her stomach when we would touch her stomach. And it was just joy. I was going to be a grandpa.”
18-year-old Sabrina Fernandez and her fetus were hit by a car that had traveled for miles eastbound in the westbound lanes of I-30 before slamming head-on into them. Donna Davila hadn’t previously thought much about wrong way drivers, “I now realize it can happen to anyone---anybody," she said.
That was just one of 991 wrong-way crashes in Texas in 2014. There were 1,015 of them the following year. And according to the Texas Department of Transportation, 2016 is on pace to come close to that mark again. As of early October, there had already been 763 crashes caused by vehicles traveling the wrong direction.
A Highway Special Investigation Report done by the National Transportation Safety Board in 2012 found these types of crashes “tend to be severe events resulting in fatalities." That same report found that “Wrong-way collisions occur most often at night and during the weekends; they also tend to take place in the lane closest to the median."
The North Texas Tollway Authority has been studying the problem of drivers going against the flow of traffic. “We’re averaging about one a week”, in the 950 lane miles managed by the NTTA says the authority’s Director of System & Incident Management, Eric Hemphill. Hemphill says some of those incidents involve drivers who are going against traffic on purpose, “They missed a ramp. They realize instead of exiting I don’t know where I am going. They will pull over do a U-turn, go back to the next ramp and try to exit. But they’ll go a mile or two trying to get back to that ramp.”
Still, according to the NTSB report, the number one cause of wrong-way vehicles is drivers impaired by alcohol. So the NTTA has trying to meet them at their driving eye-level; placing warning signs down closer to the pavement. They’ve employed flashing placards too. And now the authority is experimenting with solar powered LED lane markers near downtown Dallas, a bright, hard to miss red reminder if you happen to be moving in the wrong direction without your headlights on.
If a rogue driver isn’t fazed by any of those measures, the last line of defense are sensors that are periodically embedded in the pavement along toll roads. Ride over them in the opposite order you’re supposed to, and they instantaneously send an urgent message to the traffic control center to alert authorities.
But some long stretches of pavement don’t have those sensors. So engineers have wondered if there might be a more common piece of road equipment that could help spot someone traveling the wrong direction even sooner. The NTTA has about two-thousand cameras watching traffic. They also have roadside radar units that help time the flow of traffic.
Recently, engineers made some of those cameras and radar units ‘smarter’ using experimental software, “We’re working on that algorithm to say hey this one is not going the same way the other ones that just went through this area”.
Thinking they might be on to something remarkable, the NTTA was all set to close down a road to test the software. But before they could, one of the ‘smart’ cameras came through in a real-life scenario. It caught just a snippet of a real wrong-way driver and immediately alerted the command center so they could track the wayward vehicle and respond. It worked.
The toll authority is now testing six of the specially outfitted cameras and a dozen such radar units to see if they can keep reliably spotting this kind of problem, without giving too many ‘false positives.' As far as Hemphill knows, they’re the only ones trying something like this, “We are involved in a lot of wrong-way driving panels across the nation and we are not aware of any cameras being used at this time.
If it works consistently, the idea could quickly and relatively cheaply be expanded to many more cameras and radars, says Hemphill, “It is a crawl, walk, run type thing”. The NTTA just approved adding cameras to 42 more locations where visual coverage is still somewhat spotty. The ‘smart’ cameras and radars could also eventually be useful along more thoroughfares, not just the local tollways. Hemphill says transportation officials across the country will be watching this pilot program closely.
“That I’m glad for...I am glad people are investing”, says Donna Davila. She and her husband hope that not too far down the road, technology might actually help prevent another one of those tragic road markers from being erected, “Help other families not go through what we’re going through right now. That’s my goal. That’s our goal.”
The NTTA effort isn’t the only initiative aiming to prevent and more quickly respond to wrong-way drivers. A separate test program will be launched by TX DOT in Tarrant County in November. The highway department will set up various sensors, signage, and pavement markings to assess what works best to counter wrong-way driving.