How Texas Is tackling wrong-way driving

Wrong-way driving is an all too familiar problem across the nation and in Texas. Occurring when drivers travel against the flow of traffic, wrong-way driving often leads to more serious crashes due to head-on collisions at high speeds.

Each year there are between 300 to 400 fatalities. With a majority of wrong-way driving taking place at night, distracted or impaired driving is a prevalent cause. In fact, approximately 70 percent of these crashes in Texas involve alcohol.

Transportation research agencies have provided transportation planners with helpful insights so we can improve roadway designs to help prevent and mitigate wrong-way driving incidents. Now, new transportation technologies can help us even more.

Mobility Authority part of statewide effort

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (Mobility Authority) recently approved a plan to implement a wrong-way detection and notification system.

A key part of this plan includes installing technology that will have the ability to detect a driver going the wrong direction and notify them with flashing red lights.

When a wrong-way driver is detected, dynamic signs will be utilized to alert other drivers on the roadway

If the wrong-way driver does not self-correct and continues in the wrong direction, the technology then alerts the police and sends them pictures of the vehicle for easy identification. This also prevents false positives – for example, a road maintenance lawnmower backing up.

This is an important improvement over the current reporting system, which is the general public using 911 for reporting. By the time police get the alert, they often have difficulties locating the vehicle.

The technology’s improved communication allows police to get to the wrong-way driver scene faster, potentially saving many more lives than under the current system.

Drivers can look for this new technology along SH 45SW, which is set to open in spring of this year and will connect MoPac to FM 1626. This will be the first Mobility Authority roadway featuring the new wrong-way detection and notification system but expect to use it on future roadways.

Research institutes & technology-based solutions

Groups assisting with this new alert system are also testing technology that could alert drivers whose cars are outfitted with internet access if there’s a wrong-way driving incident in their area. This connectivity could give drivers better information and allow them more time to prepare and react to a wrong-way driving situation.

In Houston, connected-vehicle research is building on existing traffic data from apps like Waze that already provide information directly to drivers’ smartphones. Researchers are working to make it easier to track and alert drivers traveling in the wrong direction.

Melisa Finley, a researcher at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI), is working on an alert system for wrong-way drivers in partnership with the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. In a recent demonstration of this system, short-range communication radios were mounted along a road and set up to detect a connected vehicle as it entered an exit ramp on the highway from the wrong direction. This system would be integrated with existing detectors to alert drivers and trigger a wrong-way warning sign visible to the errant driver. Other connected vehicles – and nearby law enforcement – would also receive a warning.

Along with this alert system, Finley has also researched the use of flashing signs to alert wrong-way drivers. According to her research, flashing wrong-way signs along the US 281 corridor in San Antonio resulted in a nearly 40 percent decrease in wrong-way driving.

Because of these encouraging findings, TxDOT is currently installing more flashing wrong-way signs in heavily populated Texas cities, including Houston and San Antonio.

Researchers from the Southwest Research Institute are working to provide TxDOT with new technologies to supplement the agency’s response to wrong-way driving. One initiative uses thermal cameras with perception algorithms to identify patterns, and then isolate a wrong-way driver from other objects in the visual field.

The other initiative utilizes connected-vehicle technology that allows for communication between vehicles, infrastructure and transportation agencies to alert and issue a warning to the wrong-way driver, as well as to other vehicles nearby. This system can also help track wrong-way drivers.

Fort Worth’s approach to wrong-way driving

Focused on the I-30 and State Highway 360 interchange, TxDOT is using a $1.1 million pilot program in Fort Worth to test different initiatives to prevent wrong-way driving incidents on highway exit ramps.

In addition to flashing lights attached to “Wrong Way” signs, Fort Worth is adjusting sign height to find the optimal location – something the Mobility Authority has done on its roadways. Why? Statistics have shown that impaired drivers don’t look up from the dashboard, so they have a better chance of seeing wrong-way signs placed at a lower height.

As in other cities, Fort Worth is also using reflective tape to more easily attract the attention of drivers going the wrong direction.

What to know about most wrong-way drivers

Here are some points to remember if you see a wrong-way driver or an alert on a dynamic sign:

  • Because wrong-way drivers are typically impaired, they’ll aim for what they believe to be the typically slower, right lane on a multi-lane roadway – only this will actually be the faster left lane.
  • Do not try to go the wrong way yourself to attempt to change the driver’s direction.
  • The police have procedures to get the attention of a wrong-way driver, typically beginning with flashing lights, aiming a spotlight on the driver’s face, using a megaphone to give orders to pull over, and then using spike strips or a roadblock. Be aware of these procedures when the police are on the scene.

Ending the streak

Because driving while impaired is often a factor in wrong-way driving, TxDOT is asking drivers to end the streak of deaths caused by drinking and driving. We have lost thousands of Texans on our roads over the past decade, with alcohol and speed remaining two of the major causes.

The Mobility Authority is committed to keeping Texans safe on roadways and encourages all drivers to find a sober ride after drinking.

By implementing new technologies with other efforts, the Mobility Authority and other transportation agencies and research organizations around the state are working together to save lives and prevent dangerous crashes in Central Texas.


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