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Gov. Ducey wants Arizona to get serious about wrong-way drivers

Gov. Doug Ducey is calling for more serious action from state transportation and public-safety agencies to address wrong-way drivers on Arizona roadways following a deadly crash in Phoenix that claimed two lives.

wrong way drivers

“Following last night’s accident, I have instructed the Department of Transportation, the Department of Public Safety, and my Office of Highway Safety to convene immediately and increase efforts to mitigate and prevent this public safety issue,” Ducey said in a prepared statement.

Seven people have died in wrong-way collisions so far this year in Arizona. There were two such fatalities in 2016.

The double fatality on a State Route 51 transition ramp Tuesday night comes less than a week after authorities say a wrong-way driver was killed when his vehicle slammed head-on into a commercial truck on a ramp linking interstates 10 and 17. His car toppled over the side of the ramp and plummeted to the ground below.

State transportation officials announced in April their intention to install a system later this year aimed at curbing wrong-way freeway drivers in the Valley.

DPS Director Frank Milstead told The Arizona Republic the public can expect a new campaign to be launched “really shortly,” with a fresh public education plan on the dangers of driving under the influence.

“We need a new plan. We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” Milstead said. “This is a society issue. How we educate our society has to be more hard-hitting than it has been in the past.”

The three agency directors will discuss a one- or two-year plan to present to Ducey, he said. The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University could possibly assist in creating a campaign, he added.

“We’ll do our part as government. But ultimately we can only do so much,” Milstead said. “Society has to become outraged about these deaths.”

The Arizona Department of Transportation told The Republic that they are “designing a wrong-way detection and warning prototype system” that is expected to be implemented along I-17 between I-10 and Loop 101 in Phoenix.

On Wednesday morning, Ducey signaled that he wanted those measures implemented sooner, particularly as it relates to thermal sensors that would pinpoint the location of wrong-way vehicles.

“I have specifically ordered that the planned launch of thermal camera detection technology be expedited,” Ducey said. “I want those cameras implemented as quickly as possible, and expanded to as many areas as possible where they may make a difference and save a life. We also need to take some immediate actions to increase enforcement and public awareness.”

Wrong-way collisions are not a new phenomenon and statistically remain unchanged year over year in Arizona.

As of Wednesday morning, DPS had received 727 “wrong-way” calls, 37 fewer than the same period in 2016, according to Trooper Kameron Lee, a DPS spokesman.

Deadly crashes spark plans for change

From a study of wrong-way driving trends, the Arizona Department of Transportation concluded that impairment was a factor in roughly 65 percent of wrong-way collisions from 2004 through 2014. There were 245 crashes in that time and 91 fatalities.

The first fatal wrong-way collision of 2017 was April 11, when a domestic violence suspect from Globe struck another vehicle while driving in opposing lanes. The other driver later died at a hospital. It wasn’t clear whether impairment was a factor.

Three days later, on April 14, three Grand Canyon University students died in a wrong-way collision on I-17 near the University.

DPS received two phone calls of the wrong-way incident: the first was that a car was traveling southbound in the northbound lanes of I-17 “right around Happy Valley Road and Pinnacle Peak Road,” DPS spokesman Raul Garcia said. Authorities at the time said they couldn’t tell where the car entered the freeway.

Garcia said another caller reported the deadly crash to 911 approximately five miles farther south, approaching Greenway Road.

Three people died in a two car wrong-way collision

Three people died in a two-car wrong-way collision in the northbound lanes of Interstate 17 just north of Greenway Road on April 14, 2017. (Photo: April Morganroth/The Republic)

The week after the triple-fatal crash, ADOT announced its plans for a new system that would detect, alert and track wrong-way drivers on Valley freeways and along freeway exit and transition ramps.

Flashing LED Warning signs will be put into place to attempt to get wrong-way drivers to self-correct, and the system will activate alerts on overhead message boards to notify other drivers. ADOT traffic cameras also will automatically turn toward the wrong-way vehicle to help officials track it.

Thermal sensors will be put into place as another measure to update the location of wrong-way vehicles, allowing law enforcement to track the vehicles along mainline freeways, ADOT said.

“ADOT’s efforts to date include installing hundreds of larger and lowered ‘Wrong Way’ and ‘Do Not Enter’ signs as well large white ‘right way’ arrows on off-ramps with reflectors that glow bright red when a vehicle is traveling the wrong way,” the statement read.

ADOT also said it has been testing “different versions of wrong-way vehicle detection and warning systems manufactured by private companies” on freeway ramps.

Wrong-way driving incidents share similarities

In analyzing hundreds of accident reports, ADOT determined that most wrong-way incidents share characteristics.

Here’s the who, what, where and why of wrong-way crashes and when they’re most likely to happen:

  • In the hours leading up to bar’s closing at 2 a.m. and following bar closures after 2 a.m.
  • On weekends, especially extended weekends and holidays.
  • At the beginning of a year in January, end of a year in December and the hottest summer months of July and August.
  • On urban divided highways.
  • On Interstate 17.
  • While driving impaired due to alcohol and or drugs.
  • For persons between the ages of 26 and 35.
  • For male persons.

Source: Gov. Doug Ducey wants Arizona to get serious about stopping wrong-way drivers