Can bigger and brighter signs prevent wrong-way crashes on San Diego freeways?

Wrong-way drivers killed 13 people on San Diego freeways last year, a number that has prompted state officials to take measures to keep motorists going the right way.

Caltrans is conducting a pilot program that calls for improved warning devices, such as bigger signs, flashing lights and sensors on offramps along Interstate 15 through much of San Diego County. Researchers will study what systems work to reduce the number of drivers who enter the freeway at those locations.

Authorities say most wrong-way driving crashes occur after midnight and involve drunk drivers who don't realize they're on an exit ramp. Smaller numbers of wrong-way drivers are elderly, suicidal or trying to evade law officers.

A Caltrans report issued in December noted that in 2012, wrong-way drivers caused about 0.2 percent of the 109,000 freeway crashes in the state, but nearly 3% of all the fatal accidents. Wrong-way crashes caused 13 fatalities statewide that year, but nearly two dozen a year has been typical for decades.

In San Diego County in December, five people died in freeway collisions involving wrong-way drivers. One case involved David Elmore, 29, who drove north in southbound lanes of Interstate 5 trying to escape the law. He died as well as two Chinese exchange students, whose bodies were burned beyond recognition in a head-on crash.

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"Any time you have these types of collisions on the road, people will be concerned about what you can do to prevent them or stop them," said CHP Officer Jim Bettencourt.

The Elmore pursuit highlights the difficulties of dealing with a wrong-way driver.

He approached the San Ysidro border crossing to Mexico shortly after 3 a.m., then made a U-turn to head north in southbound lanes of I-5. Customs and Border Protection officers pursued him in northbound lanes, but lost him near downtown San Diego.

Authorities estimated Elmore was traveling 100 to 110 mph. Various motorists called 911 to report the Mercedes-Benz's location. A CHP officer began heading south toward Del Mar. Ten seconds later, the Mercedes slammed head-on into a rented Chrysler sedan, killing driver Shun Yang, 23, and Manlin Yang, 24.

CHP Officer Kevin Pearlstein said pursuing officers have seconds to decide how to stop a wrong-way driver, who may or may not care about hurting others.

"We are limited with what we can do," Pearlstein said. "We don't drive the wrong way. If we run a traffic break and people are killed, other people would ask why we did that. You have to hope the guy crashes into a wall before he hits anyone."

Many of the public's ideas on stopping wrong-way drivers are problematic.

CHP policy bans officers from shooting at wrong-way drivers, who simply may be confused, as stray rounds could hit another motorist or a home. Pursuing the driver by going the wrong way is also against policy and endangers the officer.

Instead, officers may drive parallel to the wrong-way driver using the correct freeway lanes and turn on their lights and sirens. They also may ask officers who are well ahead of the driver to slow down other motorists or throw a spike strip into the offender's traffic lane.

Another method is to use the patrol car to knock the back side of the suspect's car to send it into a spin — known as a "PIT" maneuver. It is done by the CHP only on a vehicle traveling 35 mph or less, to reduce the risk of it spinning out of control.

That's where Caltrans has comes in.

Edward Cartagena, an agency spokesman in San Diego, said improvements would be made at 63 offramps along I-15 from I-805 north to state Route 78 in Escondido.

Most offramps will get larger, more reflective "wrong way" and "do not enter" signs that will be set lower, in recognition of studies that show drivers under the influence don't tend to look far ahead. Some signs will be edged with red, flashing LED lights.

More reflectors that appear red to wrong-way drivers will be installed along offramps, and the reflectors will be brighter and closer together as the driver travels up the ramp. Pavements arrows also will be bigger and brighter.

Longer offramps with high traffic volume also will get electronic sensors that will set off an alert in the CHP dispatch center.

Repard writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 06, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "San Diego to test changes aimed at wrong-way cars - Preventing fatalities is the drive behind pilot program to install bigger, brighter signs on offramps along I-15." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe