Alarmed by a spate of wrong-way freeway crashes, highway officials have loaded up a handful of freeway ramps in Sacramento and San Diego with blinking lights, six-foot-tall “Wrong Way” signs, red pavement reflectors and cameras warning drivers they’re about to hit the freeway in the wrong direction.
California Department of Transportation officials said the test program was prompted by nine wrong-way fatal crashes in those two areas of the state in 2015 that made headlines and alarmed drivers.
Four of them occurred in Sacramento, leaving 14 people dead in five months. All four involved intoxicated wrong-way drivers traveling at night, the state said. In San Diego, five such crashes left eight people dead.
Caltrans said it chose 17 ramps on Sacramento’s Highway 50, Interstate 80 and Interstate 5 as test areas because many people drive here between Tahoe and the Bay Area and are unfamiliar with the local ramp system.
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Caltrans director Malcolm Dougherty, in a letter to the Legislature, said the goal is to determine “if changing off ramp pavement marking patterns and installing active warning systems can reduce wrong-way driver's movements.”
The Sacramento test-area ramps extend from just east of Davis on I-80 to Howe Avenue on Highway 50. The Q Street ramp from Interstate 5 in downtown Sacramento also is included in the test.
The state has replaced a variety of markers, signs, cameras and radar equipment at the off-ramps , not all of it at each ramp, however.
The goal, Caltrans officials said, is to employ “non-complex and relatively inexpensive enhancement strategies to get the attention of wrong-way drivers on freeway exit ramps so that they turn around before entering the main lanes.”
The agency has placed reflective red raised pavement markers on the ramps, signaling drivers they are going in the wrong direction. The state has doubled “Wrong Way Do Not Enter” signs on some ramps, putting one set at the bottom of a ramp and another further up.
Some of the signs include flashing lights that illuminate when a wrong-vehicle is detected.
On other ramps, the state plans to install cameras and messaging equipment that will photograph wrong-way vehicles and alert CHP and Caltrans dispatch centers so that CHP officers can intercept the vehicles more quickly.
The state also has connected with UC Davis to do data analysis, including getting a sense of how many vehicles start up a ramp the wrong way, then figure out their error and turn around without incident.
The state will expand use of the strategies if they prove useful.
State officials noted, when first announcing the test program in 2015, that the number of wrong-way freeway driving crash fatalities had remained "relatively stable" since 1995, after the state had implemented a series of safety improvements on off ramps.
But the fatality number still averaged 23 per year, officials said. The spate of crashes in 2015 drove home the point that these crashes, though rare, often are catastrophic.