Houston shares secret to stop wrong way drivers

1:17 PM, Nov 15, 2012   |    comments
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ATLANTA, Ga. -- In August, five people died on metro Atlanta freeways in wrong way crashes. More than 100 people have died in Georgia in the past five years. The DOT says it posts signs warning drivers and improved road markings, but beyond that, claims there's not much it can do.

11Alive reached out to communities across the country to investigate if any of them had tackled the problem successfully. Our search sent us to Houston.

MORE | Sign our peition to stop wrong way drivers

After a wrong way crash killed three people on New Year's eve in 2008, the Harris County toll road authority turned to its toll technology company, for a solution.

"It was pretty uncharted territory. It was pretty unprecedented at the time so there really was no model to follow," said TransCore vice president Whitt Hall.

Hall says Transcore built its own system, re-purposing speed radars to detect cars traveling the wrong way on exit ramps. When the system is triggered, a warning sounds in the toll authority's transportation command center, programmed cameras zoom to the location where a dispatcher can verify the alarm and an officer is sent to respond.

"It happens very quickly. The vehicle when it enters the system the wrong way it gives us the alert right away, we respond right away," said Sgt. Herbert Martinez.

At the same time, message boards in the area warn drivers nearby, actually directing them to move over and stop.

"We have told all of our officers not to chase a wrong way driver, but to get yourself in position ahead of them to deploy the spike strip," says Asst. Chief Randy Johnson who heads Incident Management for the Toll Road Authority.

The system cost about $335,000 to install in 19 locations. But the results are impressive. In four years, this 17 mile stretch has had 100 wrong way drivers, but not a single car crash.

"Wrong way detection does not stop wrong way drivers. It lets us know that they're out there and where they got on," said Johnson.
There have been lessons learned. The radars are prone to false alarms. So the toll authority is spending more than $500,000 to install sensors in the pavement instead.

"When it was raining hard, trees leaves were blowing the wrong way, you can get that wrong way movement that it's looking for," said Hall.

The toll authority has also installed road lights and a flashing sign at one intersection where most of the wrong way drivers aren't drunk, but confused.

"I think you get kind of complacent driving around a city the size of Houston, just signs everywhere, so just a little something extra to draw your attention to that sign seems to be helping quite a bit, that they're not going beyond that point. They're turning around," said Hall.

The system has won national and international awards. Guests from Mexico, Columbia and China have come to see it. But it only appears San Antonio has attempted to recreate it. There, the Texas DOT has spent $500,000 to install radars on its most dangerous stretch, along with flashing signs and message boards for motorists.

" To us it's one thing to detect a driver, it's a second to stop them and it's a third, to notify the motorists that are going the correct way that they may need to be aware of drivers going the wrong way ahead and to try and make the drivers going correctly, aware of the wrong way driver," said Texas DOT spokesperson Stuart Corder.

The problem for most communities is cost and cooperation. To install something similar to Houston's system around I-285 in Atlanta, would cost about $3 million. Police departments would have to create a unified policy on how to respond to wrong way drivers and method for dispatching officers.

As for cost, the Texas DOT says there may soon be a cheaper, easier way to tackle the problem, using the same technology already in use to gauge traffic congestion during commuter hours.

"Those manufacturers we're finding in the last year or so, are now putting out technology where they're making wrong way detection available in the same units," Corder said.

Texas hopes to pilot the new software in several spots around Houston within the year and Georgia says it will be watching. Like Atlanta, outside of the West Park Tollway, the city relies on 911 calls to alert them to a wrong way driver. But the time between a sensor detecting a wrong way driver and that first 911 call is usually more than two minutes.

"Time is so important, seconds count," said Johnson.

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