New technology could reduce wrong-way driver crashes

New technology being tested that would allow vehicles to communicate with each other and alert them to wrong-way traffic could help prevent the type of crash that killed six people in the region this week, including five in a single accident on Interstate 75.

The technology would also alert transportation agencies to wrong-way traffic.

The technology, an application, designed to be installed on vehicles, would warn drivers of hazards and potential collisions with other vehicles on the same route using a radio frequency designated by the Federal Communications Commission, said Suzanne Murtha, a project director at Atkins — a global design, engineering and project management firm that developed the technology.

“That’s not a deployed system right now generally, but we are expecting the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) will make a mandate at roughly the end of this year that will require all new vehicles to have this equipment in it to be able to do that type of application — send messages back and forth via radio signals to each other so they can let drivers know of impending crashes,” she said.

The app is still in the testing phase, Murtha said, but the DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is already moving ahead with legislation, expected to be finalized later this year, that would require so-called connected vehicle technology on all new light duty cars and trucks.

The DOT has been researching such smart-car technology for the past decade and found that it could reduce unimpaired vehicle crashes by 80 percent.

Still, wrong-way crashes are rare. Last year, the Ohio State Highway Patrol reported seven fatal crashes where the driver was traveling the wrong way or on the wrong side. Ten were reported by the agency the previous year.

“The main issue with wrong-way driving, those crashes have such high velocity and impact because it’s two vehicles coming together from opposite directions at top speed usually,” Murtha said. “The forces involved in that cause wrong way crashes to almost always be fatal. That’s why they’re a big issue.”

James Pohlabeln, a 61-year-old Dayton man, killed himself and four people on Feb. 13 when he drove the wrong way on Interstate 75. Police suspect he was driving under the influence of alcohol when he crashed head-on into an SUV carrying the four people.

Taryn Chin, a 22-year-old Cincinnati woman, drove the wrong way on I-71 South on Wednesday. Her vehicle crashed head-on into a Kentucky driver who died at the scene.

Statewide, about 68 percent of wrong-way fatal crashes are alcohol-related, according to Ohio Department of Public Safety data. Over a three-year period starting in 2013, the agency reported 25 fatal wrong-way crashes. Among those reported, 17 were alcohol related.

The wrong-way driver technology can quickly alert drivers, and traffic and law enforcement agencies about drivers traveling in the wrong direction however, it may not be able to prevent a collision if the driver is impaired by alcohol or drugs.

“If a driver is impaired and they chose to ignore all of the warnings or they aren’t able to understand all the warnings that their car is giving them about an impending collision, short of automating the vehicle, there’s not a whole lot we can do about preventing that crash,” Murtha said. “… All we can do is move the non-impaired drivers out of their way.”

Ohio is among states across the country trying to stop wrong-way drivers.

Two weeks ago, California announced a pilot program focusing on improving warning devices like lights and sensors.

Last month, Pennsylvania decided it will immediately alert local police to wrong-way drivers instead of just the state patrol.

The North Texas Tollway Authority said wrong-way crashes dropped by 60 percent after officials installed red pavement reflectors and flashing lights on exit ramps.

Ohio worked with SpeedInfo, a California-based technology company that makes traffic-related sensors, on a pilot program to test whether its highway sensors on I-70 could detect wrong-way drivers and alert law enforcement. The testing was delayed after the technology proved not to be as accurate as the company wanted, according to SpeedInfo.

The sensors, on light poles about every mile along I-70 in Clark County, could detect the speed and direction a car was, but could not distinguish whether that car was traveling in the eastbound or westbound lanes, according to company officials.

More recently, SpeedInfo started a complete redesign of its vehicle detection technology, according to Charlie Armiger, the SpeedInfo vice president of program development and sales. This new design could be used to find an application for wrong-way detection, but this would require significant testing, he said.

“Since any detector has to immediately alert to wrong way driving, notify emergency services or trigger flashing lights, etc., any solution involves a significant number of moving parts,” Armiger said in a written statement. “I reiterate this is a very difficult technical and system/response challenge, and to my knowledge, no DOT (department of transportation) has found a solution they are willing to support and deploy, yet. Everybody is looking at possible solutions.”

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