Wrong-Way Drivers

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In a recent six-day period, there were three fatal wrong-way accidents in the Phoenix area. That alarmed state officials, who are meeting to address the issue. Rob Samour, the senior deputy state engineer for the Arizona Department of Transportation, and Bart Graves, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Public Safety, will discuss efforts to reduce the number of wrong-way crashes.

Ted Simons: A number of fatal wrong-way crashes have left seven dead on Arizona roadways. The accidents have also resulted in state agencies trying to figure out how to address the problem. Joining us now is Rob Samour, the senior deputy state engineer for the Arizona Department of Transportation, and Bart Graves with the Arizona Department of Public Safety. Good to have you both here. Thanks for joining us. Why are we seeing so many of these crashes? What's going on out there?

Rob Samour: Well, first of all, ADOT takes this very serious. Along with our partners at the Department of Public Safety and the Governor's Office of Highway Safety, we have started to look at a number of reasons why this is happening, and you have distracted drivers, you have confused drivers, but in the three recent cases you have impairment. And so it's very difficult to identify those causes, but people have made conscious decisions to actually get behind the wheel when they probably should not have been driving.

Ted Simons: Indeed, and yet impairment happens, has happened, will happen. We've had seven killed in the past couple weeks here. Is this an anomaly, is -- Again, what's happening?

Bart Graves: In my experience, I've been with DPS for seven years, we have officers that have been with the agency for 20 some-odd years, this is the first time they've ever seen something like this. It is an anomaly. Is it a problem? Impaired driving is a problem, and I think we and the Governor's Office of Highway Safety and law enforcement has been hammering that message continuously for years, and I think people kind of tune it out until something like this happens. And they realize how important it is.

Ted Simons: Let's talk about highway monitoring. And just the ability to do these kinds of things. Is the technology there for that? How are highways monitored now, what are you looking at in the future?

Rob Samour: There are a lot of studies looking at the different monitoring techniques. There's microwave, there's radar, there's in-ground loop detectors. What we're currently doing through our traffic operations center is monitoring the traffic through video detection. So throughout the valley and around state, we have cameras that are monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week from a central location. Now, that system highly relies on an operator who is observing the infraction. There was a study that looked at two or three different technologies here locally, and there were wrong-way driver detections, messages that sent. The key to that technology, however, is it has to be connected to this notification system that not only warns driver, but takes that message back to a central operations center and notifies law enforcement.

Ted Simons: Are those cameras, the farther you get out of town, the less you see of the cameras? Fewer cameras farther out?

Rob Samour: That's correct. Cameras are predominantly in the metropolitan areas, though we do have some weather-related cameras throughout the state.

Ted Simons: As far as DPS is concerned, what is the policy when it comes to wrong-way drivers? What happens? What goes into action?

Bart Graves: Well, dispatch -- whatever part of the state they are in -- will notify our officers to the association with 911 calls to find out last location officers will go there looking for that driver. And they'll anticipate where the driver is going. As you probably saw in the first wrong-way collision fail involving the Officer Mendoza, our officers were stationed, this driver was southbound on the northbound lanes of the 51, officers were there, and they tried to ram this vehicle. He drove around us and they tried stop sticks and they drove around that. He was bound and determined -- and we'll never know probably -- So it's a difficult task taking wrong-way drivers off the road.

Ted Simons: Again, Phoenix area compared to areas outside of the metro Phoenix area. Is there a difference and how much of a difference?

Bart Graves: Well, we saw in the second wrong-way fatal we saw on I-17, that was more of a rural area. We did quickly get officers to the last location where he was reported, but that time element was very compressed, and before we could find this driver he killed other people.

Ted Simons: We had 35 miles of before a collision, 22 miles, 12 miles, all three of these crashes. That's what we saw. Why did it take so long?

Bart Graves: Here's the deal -- When a wrong-way driver is, say, for instance, 81 miles an hour in the wrong direction and he's driving 30 miles, that goes like that. That's very, very fast. The first case this wrong-way driver was on four separate highways. We have 33 9-1-1 calls all giving us a different location where he's at. So we're desperately trying to locate where this driver was last time someone called us. It's a very fast-paced, if you will, almost chaotic scene to find this driver. But it's a very compressed amount of time.

Ted Simons: Is it too fast paced and too chaotic, really to expect much more? Or can we expect more?

Rob Samour: So what ADOT's currently doing, and a lot of things are standardsized that you and I take for granted every day on the roadway. We have yellow stripe on the left, white stripe on the right, ramps have arrows pointing in the direction and/or for the turning movements. I brought an example of some reflectors that are in the pavement currently that are red in the wrong direction, and white in the correct direction. We have do not enter signs, and wrong-way signs. That's the low end of the technology, the driver notification. I think what people are looking for from the department currently is that technology, that detection system that will not only warn the driver, but send a signal to our partners at the department of public safety, light up those message boards, that technology, the infrastructure is at its infancy, in the urban area we have cameras, we have loop detectors, but those are really for traffic monitoring and traffic counting, signal timing, things of that nature. The detection is a few years away in terms of a full-term deployment. But right now, a lot of those systems are in study.

Ted Simons: What about, and I've heard this from a number of people, these wrong-way spikes at parking garages and other areas. Could you put those on entrance and exit ramps?

Rob Samour: The studies show those are not high-speed applications. So I would like to say after looking at the studies, we're taking those off the table as an option. They may work in parking lots, but they're going to be hard to install, hard to maintain, and occasionally our law enforcement and rescue personnel do use those areas to either stage or for access in terms of responding to incidents on the freeway. And we wouldn't want to take that option away.

Ted Simons: As far as DPS is concerned, more officers out there, more DPS officers, is that the answer?

Bart Graves: I think every police agency would like more officers, as would we. But in this particular case that wasn't -- if we added 20 officers that would not have made a difference because people think that's going to stop it, if you see more and more officers, but in this case and many of these cases these folks don't know where they are, they're impaired, and we run the risk of many pursuing them, we're pursuing them the wrong way, which puts other motorists at risk. In this case, that would not have made a difference.

Ted Simons: Is there one thing, when you talk to officers, is there one thing you think they would like to see or one suggestion they have that may override the others?

Bart Graves: I think just like Robert pointed out, the overhead, at least the first wrong-way fatal we had, the overhead digital signs was tremendously helpful to get motorists off the road. What we try to communicate to motorists is it's always very smart to drive in the middle lane that way you have reaction time, you see one of the a dot sign and should you see a wrong-way driver and people are calling in to get off the road.

Ted Simons: In reading about this, it sounds like these wrong-way drives, the minute they get on the freeway going the wrong way, they instinctively go to the right which means they go to the fast lanes coming the other direction.

Rob Samour: That's correct.

Ted Simons: Last question -- Cost. Is there a concern that something is not being done, because something doesn't -- Folks don't want to pay for it? Is that out there?

Rob Samour: So in none of the messages put out by DPS, ADOT or the Governor's Office of Highway Safety, did we discuss cost. This is a serious issue that we need to explore, all options are on the table. We will continue to drive home the message of enforcement, education, and engineering. And it's a three-prong approach that we need to look at. We have not talked about dollars because this is a serious issue that we need to look at, collectively, and continue to remind drivers that they're an important component in stopping or at least reducing the risk of wrong-way drivers.

Ted Simons: The nature of this is that we could go years before seeing another incident like this, couldn't we?.

Bart Graves: We could. I'm just going to give you a quick statistic that we were talking about, in an average month across the state, we have to our 3 dispatch centers 25 wrong-way calls a month. Now, 90% of them find -- they correct themselves, they realize they're in the wrong place and get off the freeway and get on properly. 10% we're called to the scene and we help them find where they have to go. A lot of them are disoriented drivers, others are new to the state, some are -- Have issues. But this kind of event as horrific as it was, is rare.

Ted Simons: Alright, gentlemen. Good to have you here. Good luck with trying to find a solution. We appreciate it.

Rob Samour: Thank you.

Rob Samour:Senior Deputy State Engineer, Arizona Department of Transportation; Bart Graves:Spokesman, Arizona Department of Public Safety;

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