Intelligent Technology Turns Wrong Way Drivers Around - But Only on Westpark

Over speaker: "Wrong-way driver detected. Wrong-way driver detected."

That's the sound you'd hear in the Harris County Toll Road Authority's Incident Management Center, if a car entered the Westpark Tollway going in the wrong direction. After a triple fatality involving a wrong-way driver back in 2006, the Toll Road Authority developed a system that recognizes when cars are traveling the wrong way on the 13.2 miles of Westpark. Yen Klikna is with the Toll Road Authority's Incident Management Center.

"What happens is our radar sensor triggers an alert on our wrong-way detection map. That gets the dispatcher's attention and basically the dispatchers will dispatch out the closest unit to the wrong way drivers."

Inside the HCTRA Incident Management CenterShe says it usually takes officers just a few minutes to arrive on the scene and throw down spike strips to stop the driver. A message is also displayed on the road's electronic signs, warning other drivers to move to the shoulder. There are currently 18 detectors along Westpark. Since its inception in 2007, the technology has detected 19 wrong-way drivers. But despite the system's success, at $25,000 a pop, the sensors are too costly for transit agencies on a tight budget.

"The reality is that state and local departments of transport are obviously all challenged with the amount of budget that they have. They have a limited amount of dollars and they're looking to understand how to most effectively use those dollars."

That's Rod MacKenzie of ITSA, the Intelligent Transportation Society of America. He says he praises Harris County for using smart technology to resolve a specific traffic safety problem, even if it is expensive. It's the largest system of its kind anywhere, and Randy Johnson, the assistant chief with Harris County Constable Precinct 5, says Westpark is an ideal location for it.

"The Westpark is unique because traveling east bound on the Westpark toll road, once you come into Harris County from Fort Bend, it's eight miles to the next exit."

That means wrong-way drivers could have more trouble getting off Westpark than on freeways with more frequent exits. MacKenzie says that because of the high cost, transit agencies will likely limit the use of the technology to areas with recurring incidents of wrong way driving.

"This is not the sort of technology that immediately they would be looking to implement, unless there is a specific recognized need for it. So, it's perhaps used in response to a problem rather than more widespread in sort of a preventative way."

As infrequent as they may be, crashes caused by drivers barreling down highways in the wrong direction tend to be significantly more severe. Scott Cooner, from the Texas Transportation Institute, gives a helpful tip for avoiding wrong-way drivers:

"Late at night, stay out of the left lane if you're on the freeways."

That's because wrong-way drivers tend to stay to their right, which is the left, fast lane for people going the correct way. Cooner says this tip — known to law enforcement agencies but not to the rest of us — could save you from an unexpected and dangerous encounter.

Wendy Siegle, KUHF News.
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