Despite years of detailed recommendations to prevent wrong-way crashes, an NBC 5 investigation has found the Texas Department of Transportation has yet to implement many of those safety measures on North Texas roads.
Meanwhile other states and even local toll road operators have taken steps that appear to be reducing the number of wrong-way incidents.
Texas leads the nation is wrong-way crashes. Using TxDOT data, NBC 5 Investigates has learned there have been almost 3,500 wrong-way crashes in just four years. Most are caused by drunken drivers who blow past warning signs and then slam head-on into other drivers.
NBC 5 uncovered videos wrong-way drivers, including one from April 2012 that showed a truck driving the wrong way down the Margaret Hunt-Hill Bridge in Dallas.
Last August, another video from the North Texas Tollway Authority shows a wrong-way driver cruising up an exit ramp. In the video you can see the driver realizing their mistake and turning around just in time.
All too often wrong-way driving ends in disaster.
“Less than 10 seconds. To this day, I still don’t know how I got away,” recalled St. Clair Williams who survived a wrong way crash when a drunken driver sideswiped his car and then hit a semi on Interstate 20 in Arlington.
“All the firemen and the police were saying you need to walk with us. You got angels around you,” said Williams.
The National Transportation Safety Board studied that 2011 crash involving Williams as part of a nationwide report on stopping wrong-way drivers.
Deborah Hersman led the NTSB at the time of the study.
“Anything we can to redirect people to go the right way instead of entering a high-speed interstate going the wrong way will save lives and prevent injuries,” said Hersman.
The NTSB report is one of many in recent years suggesting changes to freeway ramps including better pavement markings, red reflectors, bright red sign posts and warning signs mounted closer to the ground.
In fact, as long as 10 years ago, researchers at the Texas Transpiration Institute suggested Texas should “consider the use of lowered DO NOT ENTER and WRONG WAY signs … to address alcohol and nighttime problem locations.”
“They’re not looking seven or eight feet in the air,” said Don Peritz, NBC 5’s law enforcement expert who responded to wrong-way crashes as a commander with the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department.
Peritz said lower signs may even get the attention of drunken drivers who tend to look down because they’re worried about staying in their lane.
“They’ll drive with their head down, looking at the speedometer instead of up on the roadway where they should be,” said Peritz.
California has used lowered signs since the 1970s. Today they’re standard on freeway exit ramps in that state.
When California first lowered the signs they set up an experiment at problem ramps using cameras. What they found was stunning. The lower signs eliminated wrong way entries to the road at the majority of those ramps.
But in Texas, hardly any highways have lowered signs.
The only place you’ll see them in North Texas is on some tollway ramps. NTTA installed them as part of a test project that already seems to be working.
NTTA director of maintenance, Eric Hemphill, thinks some of the changes they’ve made on the tollway has saved lives.
Using road sensors and cameras, NTTA monitored ramps with lowered signs for four years.
On the Dallas North Tollway, the number of wrong-way drivers on ramps with lower signs has come down from 14 per year three years ago to just five last year.
“It’s been really good that we’ve seen a reduction. We’ve seen this make a difference,” said Hemphill.
But TxDOT is still not convinced.
In a statement, the agency in charge of Texas highways told NBC 5 Investigates, “The bottom line here is there is not enough conclusive data to suggest that wrong-way driving signs should be lowered.”
TxDot supports NTTA’s study but wants more research to prove lowered signs won’t pose any added danger to drivers if they crash into them.
“I think the average person is saying, you know, wait a minute. You had to have a 10 year debate about whether you could lower a sign down to three feet,” said Brigham McCown, former US DOT administrator.
He said states and the federal government need to move aggressively from studying the problem to making changes.
The federal government actually approved three-foot high signs on roads almost six years ago, but TxDOT is still studying the issue. They’ve been crash testing a two-foot pole believing it may be a better height than three feet.
McCown thinks it’s taking too long.
TxDOT refused multiple requests to be interviewed for this story.
In a statement, the agency said, “safety is our top priority … we will always take new methods/changes into consideration …”
TxDOT is testing new technology in San Antonio, including flashing warning signs and radar to detect wrong way drivers. But here in North Texas most ramps still have standard signs, no flashing lights, no red pavement reflectors, and nothing to detect a wrong way driver entering the road. That includes the ramp on Business Texas 287 where a wrong-way driver entered the road in 2011 and put the life of St. Clair Williams, and the lives of an untold number of other drivers, in jeopardy.
“I think our government needs to step in and do something. If it’s worked for one state, who said it wouldn’t work over here?” questions Williams.
And with hundreds dead, thousands injured in wrong-way crashes in Texas alone, safety advocates agree, talk of change needs to turn to action.
“Now that we have some of those best practices the focus has got to be on implementation and aggressive adoption to prevent these fatalities,” Hersman.
NTTA is currently using roadway sensors to detect wrong-way drivers on local toll roads and then alert police. Installing road sensors on other North Texas roads would be expensive. But lower signs are not. NTTA said lowering the signs cost only $200 or $300 per ramp.
It’s important to remember, most of these crashes are drunken driving crashes so highway safety experts also believe more efforts to attack that problem would also help reduce wrong way crashes.