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January 3, 2023Episode 48. Uncommonly Deadly: Wrong-way crashes are small in number, immense in devastation.
FEATURING: Melisa Finley
Wrong-way crashes on high-speed roadways are uncommon, but they’re almost always fatal. Ongoing research is supporting countermeasures to help drivers avoid – or escape — a rare but perilous roadway hazard.
About Our Guest
Senior Research Engineer
Melisa Finley is manager of TTI’s Work Zone and Dynamic Signs Program. She is an expert in the areas of wrong-way driving and work zone safety and operations. For 23 years, she has performed research for a variety of public-agency and industry sponsors.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:14):
Hello. This is Thinking Transportation — conversations about how we get ourselves and the things we need from one place to another and what may happen along the way. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Wrong way driving occurs on all types of roadways. Wrong way crashes are somewhat rare, but when they happen on high speed freeway exit and entrance ramps, those collisions are almost always serious or fatal. More than 200 instances of wrong way driving are reported on Texas freeways every year. Most of them involving a driver who’s impaired. Understanding those crashes and figuring out how to prevent them is the focus of one team’s work at TTI, led by Melisa Finley, a senior research engineer at the agency. I know you’ve been super busy, Melisa. There have been a number of things getting in the way of us getting this scheduled, so thanks so much for taking time to join us.
Melisa Finley (guest) (01:20):
Bernie Fette (01:20):
And if we can, Melisa, let’s begin by trying to frame this issue of wrong way driving. What is it exactly and how widespread is it?
Melisa Finley (01:33):
So when we talk about wrong way driving, we’re talking about people that either intentionally or unintentionally end up going in the wrong direction of travel. So this can be from confusion, it can be caused by geometry, it can be caused by other behaviors. But yes, we definitely want to define it as someone going in the opposite direction of the normal cars on the roadway.
Bernie Fette (01:57):
And that could be the wrong way up a one way street, I guess technically, but you focus on something a little more narrow.
Melisa Finley (02:04):
We do. A lot of times wrong way driving is focused on freeways or what we call limited access roadways, where we just have exit and entrance ramps because those are higher speed and unfortunately those crashes tend to be fatal. But wrong way driving happens on all types of roadways from city streets to divided highways all the way up to freeways.
Bernie Fette (02:27):
Okay. And can you talk about how widespread it is? I mean, how many of these incidents do we typically have in Texas and elsewhere in a given year?
Melisa Finley (02:35):
So for many years we were running between about three and 400 wrong way driving crashes a year in Texas we did top over 400 in 2021. We do see coming out of the pandemic time period, a lot more risky behavior across the board. And we’re obviously seeing that in wrong way of driving incidents as well. But we do remain less than 1 percent of the overall crashes that happen in Texas. So it’s a small number, but as I mentioned, a lot of those crashes end up being fatalities because they happen on high speed roadways where you have two vehicles coming together typically head on.
Bernie Fette (03:13):
Right. And do you have a sense of how common the problem is beyond Texas? I know Texas is your focus.
Melisa Finley (03:20):
It happens everywhere. We know in all states we have some wrong way driving crashes. A lot of times in the bigger states that have more lane miles, you’re gonna see a higher number of wrong way driving crashes than others. But it does happen everywhere. It just also depends on the types of facilities those states have. You know, some smaller states have less highway miles, maybe it’s more urban streets, but again, they’re, they’re happening everywhere and our crashes show that. But again, a lot of the focus to date from the research standpoint has been on freeways or those high speed divided roadways.
Bernie Fette (03:51):
And how are the numbers trending? Are they getting worse staying about the same?
Melisa Finley (03:56):
Percentage wise? I’d say they’re staying about the same. If you just look at raw numbers, you may be seeing some increases. But when we factor in things like vehicle miles traveled and volume and we look at the overall crash picture, they’re staying, I would say at least Texas, they’re staying about the same percentage of the overall number of crashes.
Bernie Fette (04:13):
Okay. I’m guessing that there are some people, and I certainly count myself in this group, who are at least somewhat surprised by the extent of this problem, a little surprised that any driver could find a way to come up the wrong way on a freeway exit ramp, given all the warning signs — wrong way, do not enter — these big red sign. Many of them lighted. They almost seemed to scream out at people coming in that wrong direction. Not to mention the fact that it’s so nonsensical. And I can certainly admit that there have been times when I was in a very unfamiliar downtown in another city and for a block or so went the wrong way down a one way street scares the heck out of a person. But can you help us understand why this happens?
Melisa Finley (05:00):
Yeah. So let me just point out, it’s interesting when I do presentations on wrong way driving, one of my first kind of things I always ask the room is how many people have seen a wrong way driver? And you’d be surprised that at least more than half the majority of the time raise their hand. Yeah. So something that we know is the crashes are small, but we know the events happen a lot more than translate into crashes, which is good. But we still know that the problem really as we define it typically with crashes, is underestimated when we start looking at the number of events and you talk to people and you start looking at some other types of data besides crashes. And so I always like to ask that question and everybody kinda looks around the room surprised right. That that many people have seen wrong way drivers.
Bernie Fette (05:41):
Do you also ask, okay, now that I’ve answered that question, how many of you have actually done this?
Melisa Finley (05:47):
I do. I ask that question too. And usually it’s a smaller percentage, but I have to raise my hand for both. Okay. I like you have gotten confused on a small collector, you know, street in an urban urban area where you’re not familiar, but there’s a lot of cues there. Right? As soon as you turn, there’s cars maybe parked facing you, there’s one way signs, there’s, you know, some vehicles coming maybe at you at a very low speed. You can kind of put your hand up and be like, wait a second. And you do your three point turn and you kind of get out of the way. Yeah. Um, that’s not as easily corrected or as recognized sometimes on high speed roadways. Especially because a lot of these types of events do happen at night where we have less visual cues to be able to tell us that we’re going in the wrong direction.
Melisa Finley (06:29):
And then we also have impairment that comes into play with wrong way driving. And so, you know, you mentioned signs, pavement markings at our exit ramps. Those are there to help tell a driver that they’re going the wrong way, especially if they accidentally get confused because they’re an unfamiliar motorist. But sometimes those traditional low cost signs and pavement markings do not catch the attention of someone maybe that’s impaired, and it can be impaired from alcohol or some kind of drug, but it can also be an impairment from a medical condition. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, We’ve seen those before in the data where someone is just confused cuz maybe they’re in diabetic shock or there’s some other reason why their body is not functioning normally and they may not realize that. And so there’s a variety of reasons that you may be impaired and not make a correct decision and turn the wrong way.
Bernie Fette (07:20):
Okay. You mentioned impairment, you mentioned a lot of these happen at night when our vision might not be as sharp and reliable as it is in broad daylight. I was waiting for you to mention another factor that I was kind of curious about and that was age. Does age factor into your data very much?
Melisa Finley (07:38):
It does. Age does factor in. So we do see, compare to some other types of crashes. In some states we do see an over representation of older adults depending on the years you look at in Texas, sometimes that’s held true, sometimes it hasn’t. But we do want to make sure that we’re looking at older adults when we’re talking about this issue. A lot of times what we see is those tend to be more of the daytime crashes. You know, a lot of older adults already regulate themselves maybe to stop driving at night so they’re not as a big a proportion of those types of crashes at night. But during the day we do see some confusion and some of those can be overrepresented with an elderly population. Just being aware of when it might be your time to stop driving or if you’re a a child of an elderly adult, just to have those candid conversations and to watch so that they don’t become confused. You know? Cuz that’s usually what happens. I have witnessed four wrong way drivers since I’ve started studying this <laugh>
Bernie Fette (08:36):
Just, just not doing research.
Melisa Finley (08:38):
Not doing research.
Bernie Fette (08:39):
You were just, you were just out driving and this is what you saw.
Melisa Finley (08:42):
Just, just out driving of which several have been on city streets here in the Bryan-College Station area where we’re located and a couple of those have been apparently elderly drivers, but it’s like a boulevard, a divided roadway where they’ve just turned from a signal maybe into the wrong side of the roadway fairly quickly self-correct. But those are common. Yeah.
Bernie Fette (09:01):
I’m curious about what it was that prompted you and your colleagues to start focusing on this, which I know you’ve been doing for a number of years now, but somewhere along the line, I wonder if someone or some agency just decided that this was a big enough problem to warrant some research.
Melisa Finley (09:17):
So as I mentioned before, the crash data, you know, it’s really random and it’s really rare. So when you start looking at this data, there’s, you have to look at a large sample of years. They again can be very horrific kind of crashes, right? And newsworthy. And so a lot of times it just happens that if one happens and there’s news around it, we just started seeing it coming up more and more. And then a lot of times what happens in a local area is someone will end up in a crash. For instance, in San Antonio, it was a police person. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So there was a police lady there in San Antonio that ended up in a wrong way crash. And that kind of elevated it. Not to say that other people shouldn’t be worthy of it being elevated, but sometimes it takes that one special kind of crash for it to elevate in a community to where people start digging into the data, start looking at the issue, and as we look past crashes and start looking at events, we can start to see more of a trend of maybe where they’re happening, how they’re happening, and then dive into the reasons and start to look at how to circumvent those from happening.
Bernie Fette (10:24):
And on the subject of circumventing them, can you walk us through the progression of solutions that you and your team have come up with over the years, some of the earliest counter measures and how those might have led to other more current ideas that you’ve put into use?
Melisa Finley (10:40):
Yeah, I think the first thing for everyone to know is it’s just really important if you are a transportation agency, just to check what you have out there. Obviously we use signs and pavement markings, they’re a critical piece on how we talk to the drivers and they have to be maintained, right? So just making sure that your signs are still retroreflective, your payment markings are retroreflective, everything’s present. You know, things do get knocked down and need to be maintained.
Bernie Fette (11:05):
I have to stop you just for a moment there whenever you said retroreflective. What’s the difference between simply reflective and retroreflective for our non-engineers in the audience?
Melisa Finley (11:15):
No, great question. So reflective just means like a standard surface. Think of a paint wall, we’re gonna get some reflection of light off that wall, but if you were to turn off the lights and just hold a candle, you still aren’t gonna be able to necessarily see that wall and it’s not gonna stand out. When we’re retroreflective, we put special materials inside pavement markings and signs so that your headlights on your car actually retro reflect, which means they bounce off the sign and come back to your eyes of the driver so that you can read or see that device instead of the lights scattering like it would on a more diffused surface, like say the the wall.
Bernie Fette (11:50):
And those are the treatments that every typical sign on the freeways get before they go up in their placement, right?
Melisa Finley (11:57):
That’s correct. All signs and pavement markings that are out there on the roadway are retroreflective so that you can see them at night in your vehicle.
Bernie Fette (12:04):
Okay. I interrupted you to get that clarification and you were talking about that quality, the retroreflective quality. What else were you going to mention about the countermeasures?
Melisa Finley (12:13):
Right, so as we look to more extensive countermeasures, maybe that we are using the data to see areas that may be more prone to wrong way, driving, whether it’s because of the geometry of the ramp or maybe the surrounding area environment. We want to look at things that we call conspicuity elements, which just the big word for saying we wanna make sure you see this device, this traffic control device. So we add an element to draw your attention to that device. Those could be beacons, those can be lights embedded in the sign. Those can be rapid rectangular flashing beacons that we put above or below the sign. And that just draws your attention. So if you’re driving, we know there’s a lot to be looking at, right? There’s the roadway, you’re controlling your vehicle, but say there’s a sign, like a wrong way sign that we wanna draw your attention to because you’ve turned in the incorrect direction, we can use those lights to do that. We also put sometimes retroflective striping on the pole so that it just pops more in the in the environment.
Bernie Fette (13:13):
Melisa Finley (13:13):
And those types of things are kind of a step up to be able to say, hey, you know what? We wanna make sure if somebody turns the right way, we can draw their attention. But then you’ve gotta have someone that can read them, right? So if we’re in our normal state of driving, a lot of times those kind of systems will help us turn around and we see that a lot. So as these systems are installed and transportation agencies have also cameras and devices that kind of coexist with those types of traffic control device systems, we can actually see people turning around and correcting, which is great, right? So we know they don’t proceed onto the system, but sometimes people, again, are impaired for a variety of reasons and they don’t necessarily get to be able to read those signs. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, so we do use color also, just so you know, if you ever see red on the roadway, on the pavement, if you see a red sign like a do not enter a wrong way sign, that’s your first indication as a driver that you’re going the wrong way. So make sure and look at that color as well. But sometimes all those devices aren’t interpreted by the driver correctly and they do proceed onto the system the wrong way.
Bernie Fette (14:24):
Yeah. And you were talking to the driver there for just a moment. I wonder if you could just continue down that path a little bit. If a person realizes, oh my gosh, I’m going the wrong way, what should they do? You mentioned a three point turn a little while ago that I guess would be great if the traffic isn’t moving very fast, but under various conditions, if a driver notices that they are going the wrong way, what should they do?
Melisa Finley (14:52):
Pull over and stop as soon as you can. You know, the best thing to do is to try to get out of the path of oncoming traffic as quickly as possible and then as safely as you can, try to turn your vehicle around. If you need assistance, call law enforcement. Just explain, I got on going the wrong way, I was confused on where I was going. I need some assistance out here to safely turn around. You know, there’s a lot of traffic say on a freeway and you can’t make that turn safely. I would err on the side of caution and just make sure again, that you pull off and be able to safely correct as soon as possible.
Bernie Fette (15:23):
Okay, great. Let’s talk a little bit about technology advancements in the area of countermeasures, particularly those that we don’t know about yet. We hear a lot about the prospect of self-driving cars, and I love the comment that Jeff Paniati made in our last episode, which was “self-driving cars have been five years away for the past 10 years,” but they are still on the way — at least, so we are told. And the prospect of self-driving cars is built largely on the promise that they will improve safety. How might advancements associated with those autonomous vehicles help to create solutions for the wrong way driving problem, if at all? I’m making an assumption there, but is there a potential benefit there?
Melisa Finley (16:08):
Yes, I think there is, and I think there’s actually a benefit even as we progress to that endpoint, right? So we’re putting a lot more sensors on our cars, we’re putting a lot more assistance devices on our cars, and I think as we do that, we build in maps, we do other things, we’re going to be able to help people more immediately recognize via whether the car just won’t let you turn that way or the car gives you some kind of alarm, knowing that you’re going in the wrong direction. Ultimately, self-driving cars, as long as they realize what the system, how it’s supposed to function and the direction of travel, you know, in theory, again, like you said, that will help reduce wrong way driving. But we do have to make sure the information fed to those vehicles or the information they obtain from the roadway themselves is correct for that to happen. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know, we do go in and and change roads temporarily. We have to maintain and construct new facilities. And so sometimes I’m thinking of construction where we push people onto the other side of the roadway. Well, technically I’m on the wrong direction of travel, but it’s okay because you physically put me on the other side of the roadway. But we’re gonna have to think through those kind of things for the car to understand this is an okay situation to be going the wrong way. This is not an okay situation to be going the wrong way. So I think it’s exciting. I think it’s definitely the way that we’ll be able to help those motorists that are confused and other things, and hopefully with those that even though they shouldn’t maybe choose to drive impaired, you know, I think at some point in our conversation we wanna make sure and touch on the fact that this does have a driver behavior element to it.
Melisa Finley (17:42):
That we can’t solve everything with the vehicle. We can’t solve everything with the traffic control devices. We can’t solve everything with the geometry of the roadway drivers. At least for right now. Like you said, we’re not all driving around in automated vehicles yet. We have to take some responsibility when we get behind the wheel to try to drive to the best of our ability. And that means that if you’re impaired, you should choose not to drive. So I think that’s a big message that we miss a lot of times with wrong way driving. A lot of people want to focus on what was or wasn’t present at an exit ramp as far as infrastructure, but we have to remember that the driver has some responsibility as well.
Bernie Fette (18:19):
And that very thing is exactly where I was hoping that we could take our conversation next. You’ve made some considerable progress with the countermeasures that you’ve talked about, but as with any other traffic safety problem, you’re somewhat limited in what you can do as an engineer. Meaning you can engineer a lot of things that are within your control, or at least within your realm of influence, but you can’t engineer human behavior. So where do you see this going? What might be the next ways to bring the wrong way driving numbers down even farther?
Melisa Finley (18:56):
So I think sometimes, I mean, we’ve always, as engineers looked at the human factor side of issues, especially when it comes to traffic control device, but also with design, right? So there are some historic infrastructure that’s out there that as we rebuild and reconstruct, we have to think about ways that we’re designing ramps and interchanges to minimize those types of maneuvers so that we can say, hey, how could a human get confused here and how can I mitigate that? And we can do the same with traffic control devices, you know, how we place them, how we angle them, how many we put out there. But again, like you mentioned, there’s only so much we can do as far as engineering to solve this problem. And so I think coming in with advanced vehicle information and the driving ability of the car also notifying other drivers is an important piece to this. And that will come as we also have more advanced information systems in vehicles, those dynamic message signs that are in locations, but they’re fixed, right? I don’t have a dynamic message sign on every mile of roadway. We try to use communication methods that we can, but there’s apps, there’s abilities to geofence certain areas now. So there’s ways that we can communicate out to folks as well that are going the right way to let them know there’s an issue on the roadway that they’re on so they can be more prepared and use caution. So I think that’s an important piece as well. Communication, obviously knowing that the driver is on the system is important. So detection, uh, the way we can use infrastructure like cameras or other types of radar, LIDAR, sensors that we have out there at ramps and along the main lanes just to be able to notify us when a wrong way driver is there so that hopefully we can get law enforcement present quick enough to stop that vehicle before it turns into a crash.
Bernie Fette (20:46):
You can’t engineer their behavior, but it’s obvious that you’re doing a lot to at least help them.
Melisa Finley (20:51):
We try to help the driver as much as possible. I will mention that there is a small number of wrong way drivers that are intentional, and there’s two types of those. One type is I just wanna get from A to B in the shortest route, so maybe it’s not convenient for me to go down a road and make a U-turn, so I’m just gonna go a couple hundred foot down this road and turn because that’s the closest route for me. I would just say to drivers, please don’t do that. You know, that’s your choice to do that, but that’s a behavior that can lead to something devastating for yourself or someone else’s family. So take an extra minute, go down, go the correct way. We all have time to be safe. There is a small segment of those intentional folks that unfortunately have decided that they maybe want to end their life. And so we do hear that some with wrong way driving. We hear that some with our commercial motor vehicle folks that we interview and talk to about wrong way driving. And unfortunately those are again a small segment, but those are ones again that you really can’t engineer for, right? That’s a, that’s a choice that they’re making, unfortunately.
Bernie Fette (21:57):
Well, and as you said very early in our conversation, these crashes might be rare, but they are almost always severe and fatal.
Melisa Finley (22:04):
Correct. And unfortunately, yes.
Bernie Fette (22:07):
What have I not asked you about that you would’ve liked me to ask you about? Any closing thoughts that you’d like to bring together and wrap up?
Melisa Finley (22:17):
It’s just important that we realize that if we’re all going toward Vision Zero or whatever it is, maybe your transportation agency or state has with respect to fatal and serious crashes, that we have to look at every type of crash and that involves wrong way driving crashes. And we have to look at all the types of data that we have available to try to better continue to understand why it’s happening, where it’s happening. But unfortunately, again, it’s rare and random. And so a lot of folks are always asking, why can’t we put a lot of tech devices at every ramp? There are thousands of exit ramps alone in the state of Texas. And so that type of device isn’t maybe applicable to every single ramp. And so we do have to balance safety and operations and funding. And so I think just the more that we can have people realize, let’s make good decisions when we’re driving. If we’re impaired, let’s not drive. If I’m just inconvenienced, let’s go ahead and take that extra time. Be aware of your surroundings when you’re that right way driver.
Bernie Fette (23:19):
I think you bring up another really important point that we really haven’t talked about up to this stage, which is the fact that building and operating a transportation system is a costly endeavor. And I remember 30 years ago when I was first starting out at TTI and one of the traffic safety experts at the agency told me, he said, I could pretty much eliminate traffic fatalities as a problem in America almost overnight if you would just give me a blank check. And I could basically fix and prevent every sort of, or just about every sort of crash, or maybe not every sort, but possibly prevent quite a few of the different types of crashes from happening. You can’t put these signs, these signals necessarily at every single spot where someone may think they may do some good. You have to really take care to measure how severe the problem is in a given spot, et cetera.
Melisa Finley (24:21):
That’s correct. We do a lot of data analysis and help transportation agencies with looking at where is the most, you know, appropriate place maybe to use what we call higher cost measures.
Bernie Fette (24:33):
Melisa Finley (24:33):
Uh, the low cost measures are pretty much everywhere, the signs and markings. Um, but yeah, when we’re looking at more detection systems, more conspicuity elements, like I mentioned earlier, like the lights, we want to make sure that we’re using them in appropriate locations. So we try to make that be a data driven approach.
Bernie Fette (24:51):
Okay. Last question. What is it more than anything else that makes you eager and excited to show up for work every day?
Melisa Finley (25:00):
Something new. There’s never anything old. I do a lot of work with K through 12 students as well, and I always tell them that engineering, especially transportation, there’s always something new. And that doesn’t mean it’s not an issue I haven’t looked at before, but because of technology and advancements in materials, there’s so much that you may be able to answer a problem today that I couldn’t answer 10 years ago the same way, right? That I did I answered it to the best of my ability 10 years ago with what I had. But now with all the technology and the cars, the technology and infrastructure, maybe I can answer it differently and improve upon it. And so I think engineering is that way. It may be a similar question that you’ve approached before, but there’s so many new ways to answer it. It’s teamwork. I just, I’ve been at TTI almost 25 years and I just never have had a dull moment.
Bernie Fette (25:51):
Melisa Finley, senior research engineer at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Melisa, this has been really informative. Thank you so much for sharing your time and your insights with us.
Melisa Finley (26:04):
Sure. I appreciate it. Thank you.
Bernie Fette (26:08):
Wrong way crashes make up fewer than 1 percent of all roadway collisions, but when they happen, those crashes can be devastating, often resulting in serious injury or death. That’s why the research focus in Texas has concentrated on high speed freeways, where the worst wrong way crashes tend to occur. Experts at TTI are developing new countermeasures and refining more established ones to help drivers avoid or escape a rare but perilous roadway hazard. Thank you for listening. Please take just a minute to give us a review, subscribe and share this episode. We hope you’ll join us again next time. Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host, Bernie Fette. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next time.