Wrong-way driver in deadly crash on I-10 ramp to Loop 202 identified

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MESA, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -

The Department of Public Safety has identified two people who were killed a wrong-way crash on the transition ramp from westbound Interstate 10 to westbound Loop 202 Santan Freeway Tuesday afternoon. That crash put two more people to the hospital.

The crash was reported via 911 call shortly after 1 p.m.

According to Raul Garcia of the Department of Public Safety, an SUV traveling eastbound on the westbound ramp collided head-on with a pickup truck. Aerial video from the Penguin Air and Plumbing News Chopper showed the vehicles practically nose to nose. 

Garcia said the driver of the SUV, identified Wednesday as Jeremiah Trotter, 63, of Phoenix, and his passenger, Bennett Frank Vella, 28, also of Phoenix, were pronounced dead at the scene.

The driver of the pickup truck and his passenger were transported to Chandler Regional Medical Center. Both men are in critical condition. According to the Phoenix Fire Department, the pickup truck belongs to a pest control company owned by a firefighter and one of the victims is his son.

Based on the damage to both the SUV and the pickup truck, it's likely that both vehicles were traveling at freeway speeds, Garcia said.

"That ramp's advisory speed is about 45 mph," he explained.

It's not clear where Trotter got on the freeway or why he was driving the wrong direction.

Cheryl Cuyler lives in the Ahwatukee area and drives that interchange all the time. She said it was the topic of conversation at home last night and at work today about how that driver got on the ramp going in the wrong direction.

"I felt bad for the victims, the people going the right way because when you’re curving that road and the medians are this high, you have no time to react. There’s nowhere to go. There’s nothing to do," said Cuyler.  

SLIDESHOW: From the scene

John Maxie drives all day for a ridesharing service. He thinks the wrong way driver may have taken a wrong exit off the freeway and possibly made a U-turn to backtrack, but instead went up an off-ramp the wrong way. 

"If there’s a trend like this coming, where you’re seeing more and more oncoming traffics, something should be done. I don’t know what the answer to that is but it does seem like there’s some issues out there," said Maxie.  

That westbound ramp from I-10 to westbound Loop 202 was closed while DPS conducted the on-scene portion of its investigation.

Wrong-way crashes a persistent problem

Earlier this year, DPS said it received more than 840 calls about wrong-way drivers in the first six months of 2016. On average, there were 45 to 55 reported wrong-way driver calls every month.

Garcia updated those numbers Tuesday, and they are about what you might expect with a little more than two weeks left in 2016. He said there have been 1,609 wrong-way incidents along highways patrolled by DPS since the first of the year.

  • 27 ended with an injury or fatal collision
  • 101 drivers arrested on suspicion of DUI

Four of those crashes have happened since October.

Two separate incidents on Thanksgiving Day were headed off before they turned into tragedies.

One wrong-way driver was taken into custody and a second was cited and released in separate incidents on two Phoenix-area freeways Thanksgiving morning.

“A very small percentage of that 1,600 has resulted in a crash,” Garcia said. “In many instances, these people reorient themselves or get to where they were going and exit the highway.”

While not every wrong-way driver call for service reveals an actual wrong-way driver, troopers always respond promptly and treat each call very seriously. 

DPS would like to remind motorists to avoid distractions while driving so that you can better respond, or take evasive action, if you encounter a hazard such as a wrong-way driver. Have a plan in mind to avoid a wrong-way vehicle so that if you encounter one, you will not waste a moment to take emergency evasive action that could save your life.

“Increase your chances of avoiding a wrong-way collision by staying right, staying aware and reporting wrong-way drivers immediately,” DPS Capt. Damon Cecil while talking about the statistics over the summer.

What's being done?

Preventing wrong-way crashes like this has been a priority for the Arizona Department of Transportation for some time now.

READ: ADOT taking steps to reduce number of wrong-way crashes

A recent study shows that from 2004-2014, there were 245 wrong-way crashes in Arizona, resulting in 91 fatalities.

The high number of wrong-way crashes prompted Arizona's Department of Transportation to put up hundreds of oversized "wrong way" - and "do not enter" signs along freeway off-ramps in hopes of getting drivers' attention.

But it's not always enough, especially with the number impaired drivers out on the road. Garcia said there was no immediate indication that impairment was a factor in Tuesday's deadly crash, but it's one of the first things investigators look at when this kind of thing happens, which, sadly, is all too often.

READ MORE: Why spike strips won't stop Arizona's wrong-way crashes

ADOT officials are now working on a Wrong Way Vehicle Detection System that would use existing sensors to alert authorities and other motorists that someone is going the wrong way.

 A prototype of the new technology is expected to be tested along Interstate 17 sometime next year, ADOT spokesman Doug Nintzel said.

RELATED: ADOT testing technology to stop wrong-way drivers (Aug. 11, 2015)

Copyright 2016 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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