Flashing lights warn wrong-way drivers on some CT freeway ramps

The state Department of Transportation is using new internally developed technology to combat wrong-way driving, which has caused nearly two dozen deaths in the state this year.

To demonstrate the new technology, which consists of a motion sensor at the end of a freeway exit ramp that triggers flashing red lights to alert the driver, DOT halted traffic at the exit of Exit 32 on Interstate-84, which leads to Queen Street in Southington leads last week.

At the demonstration, a state DOT employee drove the wrong direction up the exit ramp multiple times, causing the bright red lights to come on until the car backed off the ramp. The sensor hovers from the traffic light above the exit opening on Queen Street.

In July, the State Bond Commission approved $20 million in funding for measures to mitigate wrong-way driving across the state, according to a DOT statement.

In addition to light warnings, the state is implementing other mitigation strategies, including pavement markings and reflective strips along guard rails, DOT spokesman Josh Morgan said.

“These other measures are currently being studied/researched,” Morgan said. “With the cold and snowy season ahead, we want everything we put on the guide rails and on the sidewalk to be in place and effective. The general idea is that someone walking in the right direction will see yellow and white reflections. If someone were going the wrong way, that tape would glow red.”

Another measure being taken is changing traffic lights from the round green lights to green arrows to make it clearer which cars are allowed to turn in which directions.

The DOT-designed sensor and lights are already installed at Danbury and DOT will add them at seven other locations later this year, Morgan said. Locations include two in Southington at I-84 westbound exit 32 and I-84 exit 28 at the truck stop, in Colchester at Route 2 exit 18, and in Milford at I-95 exit 34.

Over the next year there will be 15 more sites receiving the technology, Morgan said. The 15 locations are located across the state, primarily at the exits of I-84, I-91, and I-95, according to Morgan.

Wrong-way driving is on the rise in Connecticut this year, with 12 accidents resulting in 22 deaths, Morgan said. Most accidents happened between 11pm and 4am, which is why he said the lights could be an advantage.

Data from light technology already installed at a Danbury exit ramp was inconclusive, said DOT Assistant Commissioner Mark Rolfe.

“This year was by far the deadliest year in recent history, with 22 fatal highway accidents,” said DOT Commissioner Joe Giulietti. “In fact, 2022 will exceed the number of wrong-way driver deaths from the previous three years combined. With more than 85 percent of wrong-way drivers identified as having a disability, people need to think twice before getting behind the wheel because one wrong move can be deadly.”

“The year has more time to go. For us, the infrastructure has remained the same. What has gotten a lot worse is the handling,” he continued. “I’ve spoken before about cars going much faster than ever before. They got used to driving on the freeway when we had low pandemic numbers. Now we have everything back to pre-COVID levels.”

Wrong-way accidents often happen in areas where the entrances and exits are next to each other.

Of the state’s 700 entry and exit points, more than 200 are considered high-risk based on assessments by the DOT, Giulietti said.

“My law enforcement partners know better than anyone how horrifying a wrong-way accident scene is,” Giulietti said. “These crashes are often fatal. They are routinely caused by impaired drivers. In addition to the mitigation actions you will see here at this ramp, we are also launching a public awareness campaign to reach drivers.”

Wrong-way drivers make an already difficult job even harder, says State Police Sgt. Christine Jetelema.

“We receive several calls a week reporting wrong-way drivers. No highway in our state is immune,” Jetelema said. “We’re risking our lives. Connecticut citizens are risking their lives and the lives of the occupants of these vehicles are at risk. We know there can be multiple reasons why there are wrong-way drivers and we know disabled drivers are one of them, but we also know there can be a mental health issue. We have to understand that we are out there to help these people when they are in crisis or to get them off the road when they have a driving disability.”

Abigail Brone can be reached at [email protected]

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