Arizona Gov. Says State Needs to Stop Wrong-Way Freeway Crashes

Gov. Doug Ducey reacted Wednesday to the latest fatal wrong-way crash on a Phoenix-area freeway by ordering state agencies to take steps to combat the deadly problem.

Ducey commented after two drivers were killed and a third injured in a wrong-way wreck Tuesday night. The incident was the third wrong-way accident in the last two weeks, two of them involving fatalities.

Ducey said he wanted the Department of Public Safety and other agencies to increase enforcement and public awareness of the problem. He also ordered that a planned pilot program involving new technology be accelerated and broadened.

Arizona Department of Transportation officials said last week the pilot program would use thermal camera technology to notify wrong-way drivers, surrounding drivers and law enforcement. The cameras would be installed on Interstate 17 beginning in the fall.

“I want those cameras implemented as quickly as possible, and expanded to as many areas as possible where they may make a difference and save a life,” Ducey said in a statement.

He also called on local police agencies to assist with enforcement and public awareness.

Drivers traveling against traffic on Arizona freeways claimed at least seven lives in 2016 and at least six so far this year, including the two people killed Tuesday night.

There have been 12 wrong-way crashes involving injuries or fatalities this year, up from 10 to date in 2016, according to DPS.

Wrong-way crashes have been a problem in states around the country, prompting the National Transportation Safety Board to study on the issue in 2012. The report found that about 300 people die every year as a result of wrong-way wrecks.

The agency recommended design changes on highways and alcohol ignition locks on vehicles of known DWI offenders and listed several examples of steps taken to address the problem of wrong-way crashes. The programs included embedded pavement sensors in San Antonio and a system along a 10-mile stretch of a Houston highway that relays information in real-time to a command center.

ADOT officials declined to comment, but DPS Director Col. Frank Milstead told radio station KTAR that ADOT has considered adding new lights to alert wrong-way drivers and using cameras to photograph wrong-way drivers and record their license plate numbers.

Milstead said he didn’t know whether those ideas have been approved.

Milstead also underscored his belief that the public is also responsible for curbing the problem.

“I think all too often people want to make this a road design issue or an enforcement issue,” he told KTAR. “There are obviously places where we can do better in both of those areas, but, really, this is a social responsibility issue.”

Milstead said more than 80 percent of wrong-way drivers are impaired.

People should take car keys away from someone drinking too much or abusing drugs, said Alberto Gutier, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.

In response to Ducey’s call for action, Gutier said his office, DOT and DPS plan to launch a campaign this month highlighting the dangers of distracted driving.

The DPS said there have been 737 incidents involving wrong-way drivers reported so far in 2017, resulting in 37 related DUI arrests.

Most reported incidents of wrong-way drivers don’t result in arrests or collisions because errant drivers correct themselves, Gutier said.

Gutier said he has been meeting regularly with state officials since the first wave of wrong-way accidents occurred in 2014. In 2015, ADOT began installing hundreds of larger and lower “wrong way” and “do not enter” signs on more than 100 freeway ramps throughout the state.

According to a 2015 ADOT report, wrong-way crashes occur most often after dark and predominantly in the morning hours from midnight to 2 a.m.

Sen. Karen Fann, vice-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said wrong-way wrecks have always been a problem, but increasingly so in recent years.

“I haven’t seen as many in my entire life as I’ve seen in the past five years,” said Fann, a highway construction company owner.

However, she said she knows of no planned legislation on the topic.

(AP reporter Paul Davenport in Phoenix contributed to this report.)