Back-Seat Driver

How do you stop wrong-way drivers on freeways?

The ultimate freeway driving nightmare –a head-on crash – suddenly seems like a routine occurrence. Wrong-way drivers have caused four violent collisions that killed 14 people on Sacramento-area freeways this year.

Bee readers are asking: What to do about it?

Three of the four incidents happened after midnight, the other after 10 p.m. Officials say the wrong-way drivers probably entered on offramps. Why? In two instances, the wrong-way driver was drunk, officials say. Toxicology tests are being conducted on the other two. One of them has a prior drunken-driving arrest. (See story on 3A).

California Highway Patrol data show that this type of fatal crash is in fact rare, but the numbers are alarming nonetheless: Adding the recent spate of Sacramento crashes to previous state data, we count 65 deaths in 37 fatal crashes involving wrong-way freeway drivers in California since the beginning of 2011.

That’s only about one-half of 1 percent of state driving fatalities. Wrong-way freeway crashes also do not appear to be on the rise, overall, in recent years in California. Still, Sacramento’s string of spectacular crashes has caught the public’s and the Legislature’s attention. The pressure was on this week for state highway safety officials to do something.

Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez, D-Pomona, is pushing a bill that instructs Caltrans to investigate new technologies to see if any can help. He had a talk in his office this week with Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty, and said he wants Caltrans to come up with a report by the end of this year.

“Can we look at road sensors, signage, changeable message boards?” Rodriguez asked.

Dougherty said his agency already is looking at what other states do. There are 7,000 freeway offramps in California, he said, each with “Wrong way” signs, “Do not enter” signs, and red reflectors. “If there is a cost-effective way to implement a strategy, we’re going to evaluate that thoroughly.”

Caltrans’ traffic operations chief, Tom Hallenbeck, said the agency has rebuilt some offramps in the past to make them harder to turn onto. It also is looking at placing red reflectors on rails, closer to eye-view.

Hallenbeck and other safety officials point out that drunken driving in general remains a huge risk to drivers, on or off the freeway: It plays a role in nearly 40 percent of California’s 3,000 annual road deaths.

Bee readers weighed in as well. One person suggested ramp sensors that prompt “Wrong way” messages to light up. Bill Cox is one of several readers with a basic idea: “Maybe we need to install the the wrong-way spike strips on freeway offramps.” One reader even suggested using guard arms, like those at rail crossings on ramps.

As for sober drivers, CHP officials suggest staying out of the fast lane at night. Wrong-way drunken drivers think that’s the slow lane.

Reader Heather Duzan has another thought: Don’t drive at 2 a.m.

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