TAMPA — State transportation officials are testing strategies for reducing wrong-way automobile crashes and may bring the preventive measures to the Tampa Bay area, where four of the collisions have killed 10 people this year.
Pilot programs under way along Interstate 10 in Tallahassee and on Florida’s Turnpike in South Florida could help prevent tragedies such as Sunday morning’s crash, in which a woman driving a four-door Honda south in the northbound lanes of Interstate 275 smashed into a tanker truck. Three people in the car died.
All four of the wrong-way crashes have happened on the same stretch of Interstate 275 since February.
“Because it’s happening so much in Tampa, we are pushing hard to get one of those pilot projects to our area as well,” said Kris Carson, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation’s District 7.
In Tallahassee, the state transportation department is adding new and bigger signs, adjusting sign locations, adding pavement markings and installing radar-tripped LED signs that flash a “wrong way” display if a vehicle enters an interstate off-ramp at four locations.
Similar changes are being made on ramps along the Turnpike in Miami-Dade County and on the Sawgrass Expressway in Broward County.
The pilot programs each cost about $350,000 and state transportation officials will analyze data and determine whether the changes reduce wrong-way movement.
“If you look at crash statistics, wrong-way crashes are on the rise in a lot of states and locations,” said Chad Huff, spokesman for Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise. “I wouldn’t say we’re looking at it because we saw a spike. The concerning trend was just that there’s been more of them around, and it’s incumbent upon us to see of there’s anything that can be done about it on a local level.”
The National Transportation Safety Board said there are roughly 260 wrong-way crashes per year in the country with about 360 fatalities. They make up just 3 percent of accidents on divided highways, but are much more likely to result in fatal and serious injuries than other types of accidents.
A Michigan study cited by the NTSB showed that 22 percent of wrong-way crashes involved fatalities, where just 0.3 percent of all highway accidents do.
There is some question whether the arrangements such as those in the state pilot programs would have made any difference in the local crashes. Investigators said that in three of the Tampa crashes, the drivers made U-turns on the interstate rather than entering via an exit ramp. How Sunday’s crash happened has not been determined.
“We don’t know if that’s going to solve the problem here,” said Carson of the local transportation district.
Another issue is drunk driving.
“A common thread in these crashes is alcohol,” said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. While institute hasn’t formally studied the issue, “alcohol is often a part of the problem,” Rader said. “If we could get a better handle on the impaired driving problem, it would address a lot of serious crashes, including wrong-way crashes.”
A 2012 NTSB special investigation noted that 59 percent of wrong-way drivers had blood-alcohol levels of over .15 percent. Drivers are considered impaired with a level of .08 percent.
Another 10 percent had blood-alcohol levels between .08 and .15 percent, the NTSB said.
Andrew Bergholz, co-owner of TAPCO Inc., a Brown Deer, Wis., manufacturer of traffic safety products, agreed that alcohol is a critical factor in wrong-way crashes. Still, his company is having some success with off-ramp redesigns and other technologies.
A pilot project in San Antonio, Texas, using advanced TAPCO signs at 27 ramps saw wrong-way crashes drop 30 percent, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.
TAPCO is working on monitors that can send notification to law enforcement instantly when there has been a breach at an off-ramp. The company is also researching such concepts as self-correction — trying to discover what prompts a driver who realizes his or her mistake to take corrective action.
“It’s a big issue because the ramifications are so dire,” Bergholz said.