Wrong-way drivers still taking innocent lives despite 6-year effort to solve problem

TxDOT looking to new technology to warn drivers, reduce fatal crashes

SAN ANTONIO – On March 15, 2011, San Antonio police Officer Stephanie Brown, 27, was killed by a wrong-way driver on I-35 near McCullough Avenue in downtown San Antonio. 

Officer Brown, in just her third year in the department, was responding to a call for the wrong-way driver when her patrol car was struck head-on.

The driver who hit Brown, 31-year-old Christopher Baldaramos, also died. It was later determined he had consumed the equivalent of 16 beers in an eight-hour period leading up to the crash, leaving him with a blood alcohol content of more than three times the legal limit.

Brown's tragic death was a wakeup call for the city of San Antonio, the San Antonio Police Department and the Texas Department of Transportation, which joined together with other local and state agencies to create a Wrong-Way Driving Task Force to find solutions to the deadly problem.

Despite attempts to address the problem with various countermeasures and detection systems on several highway ramps over the past six years, wrong-way driving continues to claim innocent lives on San Antonio highways.

"It's been a huge problem for the past six years," said Laura Lopez, a spokeswoman for TxDOT's San Antonio District. "We know that's an issue here and we're trying to use all the resources that we have possible."

TxDOT said there were 1,198 wrong-way driving events reported to the agency between March 2011 and the end of November 2016. During that same time period, 19 people were killed in crashes where a driver was going the wrong way.

A total of eight people were killed in 2016 in five separate wrong-way driving crashes, and in the first month of 2017, two people have been killed by wrong-way drivers.

Those numbers may seem high, but wrong-way crashes only represent about 1 percent of all fatal accidents in Texas.

"The issue is a lot of these crashes, when we see them on TV, do result in serious injuries or fatalities to people that weren't expecting it, so a lot of times it really grabs at our heart and says, 'Hey, we've got this problem,'" said Melisa Finley, a researcher at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

Finley conducted a study on wrong-way driving for TxDOT in 2014 that found the majority of these crashes happen on weekends "between midnight and 5:00 a.m., with a peak around 2:00 a.m." The study also determined "driving under the influence was the primary contributing factor" to wrong-way crashes, with 90 percent of drivers having a blood alcohol content "greater than or equal to the legal limit of 0.08,” while 60 percent had a blood alcohol content two to three times above the legal limit.

When the Wrong-Way Driving Task Force first started its work, San Antonio and Bexar County led the state with the most wrong-way crashes. Over a four-year period, from 2007 to 2011, Bexar County had 226 wrong-way crashes resulting in 20 fatalities, while San Antonio recorded 204 crashes and 15 deaths.

The task force identified the Highway 281 corridor as the leader for wrong-way crashes in San Antonio and began a $500,000 pilot program that added several countermeasures to ramps along 281.

"That pilot program consisted of illuminated signs on the highway, radars at the exit ramps," Lopez said. "We found that the area that was the most frequent area of wrong way driving activity was at (the) airport."

Flashing wrong way and do not enter signs were installed, and their poles were wrapped in highly reflective red tape designed to grab the attention of a driver entering the highway the wrong way. Special radar detectors were also installed on the ramps, which can detect when a car enters the road the wrong way and sends an alert to police. The detection system also alerts Transguide operators, who can follow the car's movements on its cameras and send warnings to drivers using digital message boards to warn them a car could be coming at them.

The combination of countermeasures and detection systems have had a significant impact on the Highway 281 corridor. TxDOT said wrong-way driving events along 281 decreased by 38 percent and several lives have been saved.

"We've logged that 58 lives have been saved over the past five years," Lopez said. "We're able to detect where those wrong-way drivers are entering the highway, being able to track them with our cameras and SAPD being able to dispatch their folks out to stop that person from crashing into another vehicle."

TxDOT has been adding the illuminated signs and radars to other ramps around the city along Interstate 35, Interstate 10, Loop 410 and Loop 1604. San Antonio has since dropped from first to third for wrong-way driving crashes in Texas.

Lopez said TxDOT plans to add more radars to 17 ramps along U.S. 90 by the end of this year. However, there are questions about the effectiveness of the illuminated signs and other countermeasures when it comes to getting the attention of highly intoxicated drivers.

A 2014 study by Finley and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute found while the countermeasures "may be effective at conveying the need to stop and turn around to wrong-way drivers that are confused, disoriented or only slightly intoxicated, researchers do not believe that highly intoxicated wrong-way drivers will be able to receive and process the same information from traffic control devices and so are less likely to correct their driving behavior prior to a WWD crash occurring."

That's why the Texas A&M Transportation Institute is now studying new technologies that can be installed along Texas highways that can detect wrong-way drivers and alert those drivers and others in their path.

"What we've found with engineering countermeasures is they can only do so much. People will still get on the road at some point, so that's when we need to know they are on the facility so we can stop them," Finley said. "New technologies are coming out all the time. We have ways to use sensors and data. We're also looking to the new connected vehicle realm to try to combat wrong-way driving as well as just to let the authorities know it's occurring. We'd have infrastructure that would talk to the vehicle itself, so as we had a detection of a wrong-way driver, it could emit a warning letting everyone in a certain distance know in their vehicle there may be a wrong-way driver coming."

You won't see spikes added to any ramps. Many people believe tire spikes installed on ramps could puncture the tires of a wrong-way driver before they get onto a highway, but Finley said they're just not an option.

"For several reasons, mainly they're made for low-speed facilities, and we know in Texas we like our high-speed freeways and we don't always exit at the slowest speeds either. We're coming off those freeways at high speeds," Finley said. "They're also very much a maintenance concern. If they malfunction you could actually puncture and cause an issue for a right-way driver, and we don't want to add to crashes because of a device we put in to decrease crashes. They're just really not designed for that, especially for long-term installations on ramps."

Testing on the new connected vehicle technology is scheduled to begin at Texas A&M Transportation Institute this spring, but it could take several more years before it would be installed on any highways.

That means we can expect to see more wrong-way crashes until drivers stop getting behind the wheel when they've had too much to drink.

"We're doing our best. Here we are five years later and we've saved so many lives. All we can do is just educate the public," Lopez said. "All we can do is remind folks that if you're going to be driving, if you're going to be drinking, then please be responsible and have a designated driver."

2014 TTI study on effectiveness of countermeasures

2016 TTI study on connected vehicles

KSAT Interactive map of WWD events:


About the Author:

Tim Gerber is an investigative reporter and anchor on the KSAT Defenders team.