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Wrong-way freeway drivers will now be confronted with a ‘sea of red,’ Caltrans says

Wrong-way drivers on California freeways soon will be seeing red – lots of it.

Alarmed by a spate of fatal crashes, Caltrans officials say they will be installing millions of red plastic reflectors – aimed in the wrong direction – on freeways statewide to make it obvious even to the most inebriated motorists that they’ve made a mistake and need to pull over.

Caltrans traffic operations division chief John Liu said crews will place the reflectors every 48 feet on every lane. That means 1,100 red reflectors per mile on 10-lane freeways.

Currently, the state employs places a single row of red reflectors every half mile on its freeways. The red plastic panels are on the backside of the markers and visible only to wrong-way traffic.

“You’re just going to see a sea of red reflectors and hopefully you will know you’re going the wrong way,” he said. “That is going to be our new standard. That is a low-cost measure we can do everywhere.”

The safety effort comes in reaction to a recent cluster of 10 fatal crashes in 2015 caused by wrong-way drivers in the Sacramento and San Diego areas. In total, 24 people were killed.

All of the crashes occurred at night, most of them after midnight. All were determined to have involved alcohol, except one where there was no cause listed. Often, the offending driver’s blood alcohol level was very high, according to Caltrans.

That death total rose by another six last week in a single fiery crash on Interstate 5 north of Woodland. A Sacramento woman going the wrong way at 12:30 a.m. smashed into a car carrying five friends, all in their teens and 20s. California Highway Patrol officers said they have not yet determined why the woman was going the wrong way.

State officials say data show that wrong-way freeway crashes are infrequent. But when they happen they typically are catastrophic.

Woodland CHP Officer Rodney Fitzhugh was on the scene of the most recent crash. “Horrific,” he said. “I’ve been doing this 12 years and that’s probably one of the worst scenes I’ve seen.”

Caltrans officials say it will take several years to have the 2.5 million “retroreflective” markers on all freeways. The work will be done over time when crews are out doing maintenance, or when new freeway pavement is being laid.

A Caltrans analysis two years ago noted that wrong-way driving sometimes occurs when a driver makes a U-turn after initially driving the right way on the freeway. Other times, the driver enters the freeway by going the wrong direction onto an offramp.

California freeway offramps typically are framed by large red signs that say “Do Not Enter. Wrong Way,” among other warnings.

Caltrans’ Liu said his agency likely will also begin placing red reflectors on offramps, similar to what it is doing on the freeway main line. That may include placing reflectors around the white directional arrows that are painted on the offramp roadway.

The state likely will take other measures after it concludes a two-year safety study now underway at offramps in Sacramento and San Diego.

The test sites, including 17 ramps on I-5, I-80 and Highway 50 around Sacramento, have been outfitted with larger signage, reflective markers on the pavement, and cameras and detection devices that can alert the state’s real-time traffic management center, which in turn can alert CHP officers.

The state also is experimenting with flashing LED lights bordering the wrong-way signs that will be triggered when motion detectors sense a vehicle entering an offramp.

Cameras and motion detectors are expensive, though, and the state has 6,000 offramps to deal with. Caltrans’ Liu said the state is focused on low-cost, efficient steps.

The state is not looking at placing wrong-way spikes in the pavement to puncture tires at the base of offramps, however. Those would be expensive, easily broken and hard to maintain, Liu said. The spikes also would not cause tires to deflate quickly enough to prevent a wrong-way vehicle from getting up onto the freeway, he said.

Officials say phone alerts from other drivers can work if an officer is in the vicinity. In the recent spate of wrong-way crashes, one driver traveled more than five miles, for about five minutes, in the wrong direction before hitting another car. CHP officials say they want drivers to call them about wrong-way drivers – as soon as they have steered clear for their own safety.

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