Two drivers were killed earlier this month when they collided head-on after one of them got on Interstate 540 in North Raleigh going the wrong way. It happened again this past Sunday on U.S. 264 near Bailey in Nash County, where a man died after he got on an exit ramp and hit a car head-on.
It’s wrong-way collisions likes these that the N.C. Turnpike Authority tries to prevent using the system of sensors and cameras it relies on to collect money on the state’s toll roads. Soon the authority will begin testing upgrades to the system on the Triangle Expressway that would warn drivers when they’ve gotten on the wrong ramp and alert the State Highway Patrol faster when a wrong-way driver makes it onto the freeway.
“This is not an issue limited to the Triangle Expressway,” said Beau Memory, executive director of the N.C. Turnpike Authority. “The difference is we have the ability to detect it.”
Wrong-way crashes are relatively rare. Of the 124,867 freeway crashes in North Carolina from 2006 through 2012, only 200 involved drivers going the wrong way, according to a study by the N.C. Department of Transportation.
But people are much more likely to be injured or killed when a driver is going the wrong way. Those 200 crashes killed 59 people and injured another 260. From 2000 through last year, 145 people were killed and 643 injured in wrong-way crashes in North Carolina.
More than three drivers a month on average get on the 19-mile Triangle Expressway going the wrong way, Memory said. The Turnpike Authority knows this because the sensors embedded in the pavement to help collect tolls were also designed to detect when a vehicle is going the wrong way.
The system then sends an email to the expressway’s operators in the control room, letting them know what it has detected. The operators then use the cameras along the freeway to find the wrong-way driver before calling the State Highway Patrol. More often than not, the sensors have picked up a mower or maintenance truck, Memory said, and not a true wrong-way driver that state troopers need to stop.
“We don’t want them chasing down a mower 30 times a month,” he said.
Still, the system is slower than it needs to be; it takes 90 seconds or more for the email to reach the control room, then more precious time to actually confirm the wrong-way driver.
So this winter, the Turnpike Authority will begin testing an enhanced version that includes “Wrong Way” and “Do Not Enter” signs that will light up when the sensors detect a vehicle going the wrong way. In addition to the email, it will also send pop-up messages and videos of the wrong-way vehicle to the screens of turnpike operators, reducing the time it takes to confirm that it’s not a mower or maintenance truck.
The authority will test the system in as many as four places along the Triangle Expressway. Using what it learns there, the authority will have the new technology in place along the 20-mile Monroe Expressway in Union County when it opens late next year. Then it will be deployed all along the Triangle Expressway.
The NCDOT study found that alcohol was the most common factor in wrong-way crashes, playing a role in about half of them. Nine out of 10 crashes took place at night.
But Memory said the Triangle Expressway data shows that people use exit ramps to get on the freeway at all hours of the day, often out of simple confusion. Since the road opened six years ago, there have been no wrong-way crashes on the Triangle Expressway, in part because of the existing early-warning system and because wrong-way drivers often catch themselves and turn around.