Monday afternoon, just after the lunch hour, a high-priority alert jostled the attention of a pair of engineers and an operator at our TransGuide operations center. Photographs attached to the alert showed a white pickup truck hastily driving the wrong way across the Callaghan Road exit ramp on US Hwy 90.
The alert is part of a new system we are testing to combat the growing problem of wrong-way drivers in San Antonio. Since we joined the San Antonio Police Department to track wrong-way driving incidents in 2011 we’ve seen an average of more than 460 wrong-way drivers reported on local highways.
You read that correctly. More than 460 wrong-way driver reports per year.
Even more frightening than the frequency of these events is the growing prevalence. In 2013 we saw 381 reported incidents; we had 575 such events reported in 2016. In order for these events to count they must take place on a controlled-access highway, or what most people would call a freeway.
That’s how the wrong-way driver reported the morning of March 16, 2011, turned out. Christopher David Baldaramos, who was 31 at the time and on probation for a DWI charge the previous year, was driving north in the southbound lanes of I-35 downtown without headlights. San Antonio Police Officer Stephanie Ann Brown, then just 27, was driving south to answer a call for an officer in trouble and was unaware of Baldaramos. He drove his SUV head-on into Brown’s patrol car. Baldaramos was pronounced dead at the scene; Brown died less than an hour later at the hospital.
Within two months a task force was assembled in Brown’s honor. Its mission is simple: prevent wrong-way fatalities. Its efforts have garnered nationwide attention. Because of the taskforce’s efforts we’ve installed LED-lit “Wrong Way” signs across the city, making the specialty sign standard for all future highway projects. Public awareness campaigns have launched to combat drunken driving – the leading factor in wrong-way driving incidents. By the end of 2013 special radar-detection systems were installed at select locations along US 281 north of downtown.
Each step taken has led to another. The latest step – installing WrongWayAlert detection systems on a handful of ramps along US Hwy 90 at the start of the year – came when the detection systems along US 281 proved ineffective. The previous systems used a single detection point and would often provide false positives, rendering the system ineffective. It also failed to provide a point of origin for the wrong-way driver, only detecting the threat once it was on the highway.
The new system uses three detection points, triangulating objects being detected to give the system the ability to know precisely when – and where – a wrong-way driver enters the highway.
The moment an issue is spotted WrongWayAlert, a system developed by the company to manufacture the first radar speed signs back in 2001, sends a text message to a dedicated phone a the TransGuide center and issues email alerts to mailboxes we keep open around the clock. Our operator is able to pass the alert along to a police dispatcher sitting less than a dozen feet away while simultaneously finding the culprit on one of more than 200 traffic cameras across the city.
Together the TransGuide operator and the police dispatcher then guide responding officers to the driver to assess the situation and make arrests if needed.
Four ramps, all along US 90 on the city’s West Side, have been equipped with the new gear thus far, with another dozen or so planned as we pilot the system. If Monday’s ping is an indicator of performance it won’t be long before we have WrongWayAlert running across the city.
The truck detected Monday turned out to be a construction vehicle traveling safely through the work zone. The time it spent on the ramp was no more than one or two seconds before it was safely back behind barrier. TransGuide engineer John Gianotti says the detection of this truck was actually remarkable and boosted confidence in the new system. After all, actual wrong-way drivers will be on these ramps a much longer duration (between five and ten seconds) to allow the system to see and create an alert.