Texans Fighting Wrong-Way Driving With Smarter Signs

Michael GrossmanApril 07, 2017 5 minutes

One such set of lines is the ones that divide the lanes of the road. Motor vehicles are obviously extremely dangerous, especially when operated incorrectly. The law does what it can to make sure people more or less understand this fact and keep it in mind when operating a vehicle, but drivers still make bad choices sometimes. At that point, several tons of steel and fiberglass end up barreling down a freeway at 60 or more miles per hour, pistons churning thanks to the power of perpetual explosions, headed completely the wrong direction.

This often has disastrous results; one such instance recently came to our attention from Houston, TX.

Houston, TX: April 2, 2017

The Texas Department of Public Safety reported that the married couple of Patrick and Jackie Delane were southbound on Interstate 45 when their Mercedes was struck by a wrong-way driver near the Hardy Toll Road.

The Delanes had just finished celebrating Patrick's upcoming 50th birthday (Monday) with relatives at a nearby IHOP. As they traveled down the interstate, 32-year-old Adam Bonilla, headed north in a Dodge Charger, crossed over the divider into the southbound lanes.

The two vehicles collided head-on; all three involved parties were pronounced dead at the scene. Authorities are investigating the crash further to see if alcohol may have played a factor in the collision. A spokesperson for the DPS stated that Bonilla's vehicle was traveling at speeds up to 100 miles per hour on the interstate.

Proposed Remedy: Adjusting Traffic Signage

Big Texas cities with dense populations and high numbers of vehicles per capita (Houston, Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth, San Antonio) experience some of their worst crashes due to wrong-way drivers. By virtue of physics, two vehicles colliding head-on at high speeds is very often a formula for catastrophe. Many of them happen in the very-late or very-early hours of the day, and they often involve intoxicated drivers who have become disoriented or distracted behind the wheel.

Pictured: Traffic signs at both standard and reduced heights.
Pictured: Traffic signs at both standard and reduced heights.

Authorities are working on ways to reduce the number of wrong-way incidents, given the high injury and fatality rate associated with those crashes. The Department of Transportation already posts signage in areas with strong likelihoods of wrong-way entry, but they do not always seem to be effective. Safety experts and engineers are looking for more creative approaches to help reduce the number of these collisions that happen annually. They are trying to take into account the various reasons a motorist might accidentally travel the wrong direction on a road--including (and probably emphasizing) drunk drivers.

Chief among these new efforts is lowering the height of mounted "Wrong Way" and "Do Not Enter" signs closer to a driver's eye level, at a height of approximately 3 feet from the ground. The idea behind this is that drivers, particularly drunk ones, focus very carefully on the road immediately in front of their cars, to the exclusion of peripheral awareness. In an effort to stay in their lane and avoid obstacles, intoxicated parties don't look left or right, or raise their line of sight away from the road's surface. Since traditional road signs are mounted at a height of 7 feet, the offending drivers often do not notice them until it is too late.

The North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) has taken tentative steps in this direction, installing lowered signs at a few high-risk intersections in the Dallas area. TxDOT has also granted permission to its regional offices to install lowered signs in areas with a history of wrong-way incidents. Beyond that, the department wants to employ new pavement markers and reflective materials to help alert wrong-way drivers before disaster can strike. Early results from technical assessments suggest the city has seen up to 56 percent fewer wrong-way drivers in high-risk areas where the lowered signs were implemented.

There is some disagreement about the signs' overall effectiveness; one research study recommends their use, while another suggests their results are inconclusive so far. TxDOT therefore recommended that district engineers not rely solely on lower signs, suggesting that it be combined with other countermeasures, like flashing red lights around the signs' borders and reflective decals on their posts. Engineers also acknowledged that drunk drivers are the primary source of these accidents, meaning that any safety protocols are only as effective as the motorists who observe them.

The Three-Pronged Approach to Wrong-Way Drivers and Alcohol

No single method will be sufficient to address the problem of wrong-way driving. Ideally, society should seek to prevent these tragedies, but failing that, their perpetrators must be punished. The approach currently used to combat the phenomenon has 3 important elements that work in tandem:

  • The first measure is a matter of civil engineering. As noted, this effort is somewhat newer than the others, and is still experimenting with ways to get the best results. If wrong-way drivers can be stopped before they enter an exit ramp or cross a road's center line, lives could be saved. The Department of Transportation's improved "Wrong Way" signage and help drivers recognize the errors they are about to commit could be vital to this effort.
  • The second element involves law enforcement. Police contribute to better motorist behavior simply by virtue of their visible presence, since most drivers reflexively slow down and pay more attention to their surroundings when they spy a patrol vehicle. By monitoring traffic and engaging in patrols, police presence helps stave off many collisions that might well happen if cavalier motorists believed there would be no consequence to a loose obedience of the law. Officers additionally provide the first layer of reactive justice to crashes, enforcing transportation laws and taking transgressors into custody. The law enforcement portion of the equation is probably the most effective when addressing drunk drivers, as they constitute the majority of wrong-way accidents.
  • The third angle to approach this issue is the law itself. The criminal justice system punishes the driver him- or herself for operating a vehicle while intoxicated, which is prohibited by law. If death or injury occur as a direct result of that drunk driving, severe punishments are merited, both in reaction to the accident and in hopes of illustrating the gravity of the consequences to other would-be drunk drivers. Civil law also plays a role because these crashes can take an enormous financial toll on victims and their families, and it is not unreasonable to seek remedy for the costs incurred by medical treatment and loss of earnings. Moreover, Texas dram shop law has for several decades allowed plaintiffs to seek compensation from establishments that over-served patrons, creating fertile circumstances for drunk-driving crashes. It is dram shop law's position that these bars play an active role in creating drunk drivers, and they should therefore be considered liable in court for the damages those drivers cause.

I know that not every wrong-way crash derives from a drunk driver leaving a bar at 2 a.m. The numbers do suggest this is a fairly common theme, however. While occasionally there may be a simple issue of a driver becoming disoriented in an unfamiliar area full of one-way streets (*cough*Downtown Dallas*cough*), the simplest explanation usually involves the diminished reasoning capacity of someone who had a few too many drinks. No matter how the wrong-way driver ended up there, though, anyone harmed by negligence has the legal right to pursue compensation from the responsible party or parties.

In an ideal world, the combination of laws and enforcement would be enough to keep anyone from overindulging and then putting others at risk, but because such things happen almost daily, additional steps appear necessary. I hope that increased visibility for traffic signage helps reduce the number of tragedies in the news.