The Arizona Department of Transportation took a major step in implementing a much-needed weapon in its war against wrong-way drivers Friday when it awarded a contract for a detection system to a Mesa company called Contractors West Inc.
The pilot project, which involves more than 40 thermal cameras, is the first of its kind in the country. At a cost of $3.7 million, those cameras will be installed along a 15-mile stretch of Interstate 17 -- from Interstate 10 to Loop 101 -- in Phoenix. Just this year, there have been five wrong-way driving incidents along this stretch of freeway that ended in a wreck or an arrest. There have been four on State Route 51, which parallels I-17.
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Under orders from Gov. Doug Ducey to accelerate construction, ADOT has already preordered most the materials for the project, including the cameras, fiber optic cable and poles.
"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 in June following a fatal wrong-way crash at the Mini-Stack. That incident was the third wrong-way accident in a span of two weeks, two of them involving fatalities.
Construction should start in August, about a month ahead of earlier projections, with installation and testing complete by early next year.
“The system will use thermal cameras to detect a wrong-way vehicle along an off-ramp, triggering an illuminated wrong-way sign with flashing lights aimed at getting the attention of the driver,” according to an ADOT news release. “The system will immediately alert the Arizona Department of Public Safety and ADOT while warning other freeway drivers in the area through overhead message boards. On the freeway, additional thermal cameras placed at 1-mile intervals will signal when a wrong-way vehicle passes to help State Troopers plan their response.”
ADOT released video of the thermal cameras in action.
Although ADOT and DPS mobilize quickly when there’s a report of a wrong-way driver, the first they hear of it usually comes from 911 calls made by other drivers.
The thermal cameras are meant to sound the alarm the moment a wrong-way driver gets on the freeway. Earlier notification that includes an exact location means faster action.
“The I-17 pilot system will speed notification, but it can't prevent wrong-way driving, which in most cases involves impaired drivers,” according to the news release.
"The roads haven't changed, but people's behavior has changed," Milstead said.
The Department of Public Safety said there have been 956 incidents involving wrong-way drivers reported so far in 2017. Most reported incidents don't result in arrests or collisions because those motorists correct themselves, said Alberto Gutier, director of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety.
It's the other incidents -- the ones in which drivers do not correct themselves -- that are the biggest concern, but there are no easy solutions to this potentially deadly problem.
Many people have suggested ADOT simply install one-way spike strips at freeway entrances. It seems at first glance as a no-brainer solution, but ADOT Director John Halikowski spiked the idea in a blog post last year.
"Based on our research, it doesn’t look like tire spikes are used anywhere on a highway to stop wrong-way drivers," he wrote. "This issue is more complex than a parking lot security device can offer."
What it boils down to is that those strips are not designed for high-volume traffic or regular street speeds.
"There is no manufacturer out there that makes anything that's going to run at 45 miles an hour that is going to be sustainable, that's not going to break," said ADOT Division Director for Infrastructure Delivery and Operations Steve Boschen.
“ADOT and partner agencies, including DPS and the Governor's Office of Highway Safety, continue to study other potential responses to reduce the risk from wrong-way driving,” according to ADOT.
At the same time, the agency and driving schools say it’s up to drivers to look out for themselves and be prepared to act if they see a wrong-way driver coming at them.
As a driver, the best thing you can do is be aware of what's happening around and stay as far to the right as you possibly can.
"Stay out of the carpool lane and the high-speed lane after hours if you can," Milstead and his troopers advise. "It's just safer on the other side of the road."
Contractors West has been in business since 1976, according to its website, and "specializes in highway electrical, fiber optics and signing construction."
If Contractors West is unable to fulfill its obligation, ADOT has a backup contract with Roadway Electric LLC.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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