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Wrong-way crashes happen all too frequently in Florida, but state making efforts to change that

Florida Department of Transportation implements technology to alert impaired drivers, warn others
'Wrong Way' sign at I-95 exit ramp at Northlake Boulevard
Posted at 5:26 PM, Feb 03, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-03 17:43:09-05

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Despite more than five decades of research, wrong-way crashes still happen. The collisions are often deadly or catastrophic to the driver and the victims in their path.

The Florida Department of Transportation has a new wrong-way driver initiative to implement efforts to make roadways safer.

Hundreds of miles of interstates are watched by the FDOT using cameras and monitoring systems. Studies have shown most wrong-way movements enter the freeway or expressway from an exit ramp. The department has focused more recently on more than 1,600 off-ramps where drivers can enter the roadway in the wrong direction.

One of the best pieces of advice from the FDOT is to drive in the center or right lanes, especially during late night and early morning hours when most wrong-way drivers often think they're in the slow lane, which is the fast lane for vehicles traveling in the other direction.

Motorists who encounter an impaired or wrong-way driver are asked to call 911. The goal, however, is to eliminate the threat altogether.

Research has found a "clover leaf" intersection pattern is the best at preventing crashes, and intersections near off-ramps have been redesigned in many cases to make them safer. The first phase of a new safety project is complete in the FDOT's five-county District 4, enhancing pavement markings and static signage proven to be effective for those who are not impaired.

District 4 is made up of Indian River, St. Lucie, Martin, Palm Beach and Broward counties.

FDOT District 4 operations center in Fort Lauderdale
The Florida Department of Transportation monitors traffic from Indian River County to Broward County at District 4's headquarters in Fort Lauderdale.

Recently, there have been some improvements in terms of flow of communication. Now, 911 calls, Florida Highway Patrol reports, cameras and ground-level lasers have been tied together.

"So, there's a lot of computing horsepower that happens behind the scenes here," Daniel Smith, the Transportation Systems Management and Operations arterial program manager, told WPTV.

Smith said when a wrong-way driver is detected, the team searches the cameras to confirm the information and see if the driver turns around.

"We dispatch to FHP, our first responders, Road Rangers, the severity of response people, so it triggers a whole cascading set of events in here almost instantly," he said.

Right now, signs are being installed at specifically identified locations across the state, like the southbound Interstate 95 exit ramp at Blue Heron Boulevard. The signs will have flashing lights, facing the wrong way, to try to alert a driver if he or she is getting onto the interstate by way of an exit ramp.

"How do we make you understand, 'Hey, you're going the wrong way?'" Alexandra Lopez, District 4's transportation systems management operations program engineer, said. "If the driver doesn't turn around, we have connection — direct connection — from this center … to that equipment."

Ashleigh Walters speaks to FDOT's Alexandra Lopez about wrong-way drivers
WPTV's Ashleigh Walters speaks to Alexandra Lopez, the Florida Department of Transportation's systems management operations program engineer for District 4, about the technology being used to help prevent wrong-way crashes.

The system is tying together communication with technology to make the hunt for the driver faster.

"Five years ago, we would have to have a report from FHP, a driver maybe called 911, and FHP called us, and we'll start looking with the cameras," Smith said. "Or maybe it was the other way. Maybe somebody that works here noticed it or saw it happen, and we would call FHP and there were really no electronics that could detect that. But now the situation is completely different. We have a very robust communications network in District 4 in southeast Florida that ties all of this stuff together."

The system could also start the chain of alerts to the FDOT and to points of contact with other drivers already on the road. The system should trigger a notice on overhead digital signs that often relay information like Amber Alerts and road warnings. It would caution those behind the wheel that a wrong-way driver had been detected, prompting them to pull off or proceed with caution.

Google and Waze could also warn drivers who are using their apps of the hazard in real time.

Inside the District 4 headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, there are dozens of screens going 24 hours a day, with views of almost every stretch of the highways in Broward County, Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast.

Employees monitor the stretches of roadways to help in a variety of capacities. Part of their job is to assist law enforcement in the event of a wrong-way driver, by offering a moment-to-moment track to anticipate where the driver may be intercepted. The only time an audible alarm goes off in the room is if there's a wrong-way driver.

closeup of monitors at FDOT District 4 headquarters
Monitors at the Florida Department of Transportation's District 4 headquarters in Fort Lauderdale display traffic cameras at exits along Interstate 95 in Broward County.

"We have a lot of cameras," Smith said. "We can see almost every inch of the freeways, so we're monitoring 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

There is also technology that drivers may not have noticed while behind the wheel.

"We have something called MVDS. It's a microwave vehicle detection system," Smith said. "It uses a Doppler radar and it shoots a beam across the freeway, and those are spaced either every quarter-mile or every half mile, and we can measure the number of vehicles, how fast the vehicles are going, average speeds, volumes, densities. We have a really, really good idea of what's happening through these sensors."

There's another layer to the system.

"We also have something called a BlueToad sensor, where it picks up a piece of people's BlueToads as they drive by in their vehicles, maybe from their phone or their car. Who knows? We don't know who they are. It doesn't really matter," Smith said. "But we can judge how long it takes people to get from point A to point B, and we know what it was yesterday and last year."

The team is also aware that the threat has not been completely resolved.

"There's currently no way to physically to stop a wrong-way driver," Smith said. "Maybe someday there will be, but right now there's not."

In the last year alone, Contact 5 found 10 wrong-way crashes that resulted in death.

  • Jan 17, 2022: A 36-year-old man and a 4-year-old were killed by a drunken driver going the wrong way in Sebring.
  • Nov. 8, 2021: Two Jacksonville women killed when their SUV, going the wrong way on the Hart Bridge, which spans the St. Johns River, collided with a city bus.
  • Nov. 21, 2021: An Immokalee man was killed in a wrong-way crash on State Road 29 in Collier County.
  • Aug. 24, 2021: A driver of an SUV was killed when his vehicle was hit and plunged 300 feet off an overpass near the Golden Glades interchange in Miami-Dade County. The wrong-way driver was charged with vehicular homicide.
  • April 11, 2021: A 20-year-old Tampa woman driving the wrong way died when she collided head-on with another car along U.S. Highway 41 south of Tampa.
  • April 3, 2021: An 83-year-old Bradenton man driving the wrong way on U.S. Highway 41 in a pickup truck died when he struck another driver about 3:30 a.m.
  • March 9, 2021: A Tampa police officer died when he veered into the path of a wrong-way driver on Interstate 275. Investigators said he died trying to protect other drivers.
  • March 2, 2021: A 24-year-old and 23-year-old died on Tampa's Dale Mabry Highway when one driver crossed the median about 3 a.m.
  • Dec. 14, 2021: A 21-year-old from Lauderdale Lakes was killed when a drunken driver drove the wrong way on Interstate 75 in Venice.
  • Dec. 29, 2020: Wisconsin siblings, ages 21 and 18, were killed by a carjacker fleeing from police on Interstate 95 in Volusia County near the Daytona International Speedway.

Scott said the changes have been a long-time coming.

"We're trying to accelerate schedules as much as we can," he said. "What we're doing is not only implementing this strategy, let's say, as a standalone project, but we're actually building in the installation of this system into projects that have already been programmed, or some of them are even in construction now."

All of the improvements can't come fast enough, according to Volusia County Sheriff's Office Deputy Timothy Maxwell. He drives anywhere from 200 to 350 miles per day on his shift. He is humble and reluctant to say much about his heroism on a night almost exactly three years ago.

During one of his shifts in 2019, about a half-dozen drivers reported a wrong-way driver on I-95 near Edgewater. It started a race for Maxwell to anticipate the driver's moves while protecting citizens.

"We had time to shut the interstate down at all the exits," Maxwell said.

It was all shut down, but a few vehicles had already gotten through. Maxwell raced to them, attempting to warn them of the danger.

"Unfortunately, the vehicles that were involved were like the last vehicles that we weren't able to get off the interstate in time," he said.

Deputy Timothy Maxwell, Volusia County Sheriff's Office, recalls wrong-way crash in 2019
Volusia County Sheriff's Office Deputy Timothy Maxwell recalls the time in 2019 that he witnessed a fatal wrong-way crash on Interstate 95.

He watched as one large truck flipped to avoid what another car could not.

"I saw the explosion from the two cars making head-to-head contact," he recalled.

The entirety of what unfolded next was caught on body camera video.

The wrong-way driver died in the crash. The vehicle that came into its path — the one going the correct way on I-95 — was smashed and on fire. Fire extinguishers would not be enough to stop the flames.

"Half of the vehicle was engulfed," Maxwell recalled. "I took out my knife. There was side airbags. We cut those. There was only one person in the vehicle, that was the driver, at which point, I think he probably had his legs broken."

The vehicle's doors were locked and there was no power in the system to unlock them. Another deputy had an ax, which Maxwell used. Choking past thick black smoke, Maxwell used all his force to smash and pry to try to get the person free from the wreckage.

Maxwell could hear agonizing pleas for help from the man inside the car. Maxwell knew the car might blow up, but, he said, he could not turn away.

"So I put myself in a situation where I could have gotten burned," he said. "I didn't know if this thing was gonna blow up. But at the time, it's not something that I even cared about. I just knew that I had to get him out of there."

Maxwell eventually freed that innocent driver, saving his life.

"I guess at that time, my adrenaline starts to pump," Maxwell said. "I had inhaled a lot of the smoke at the time, and I remember throwing up, like, three different times, so it was a rough night."

Body camera video seen through cellphone shows Deputy Timothy Maxwell save victim in wrong-way crash
Body camera video seen through a cellphone shows Deputy Timothy Maxwell work to save a victim in a wrong-way crash in 2019.

The deputy had to receive medical attention for smoke inhalation and exposure to the fire. It also took work and time to come to grips with the experience on an emotional level. Maxwell never wants to watch the body camera footage from the scene again, and he finds himself more acutely aware of certain driving habits on the road. He plans to teach his children the habits when they get to a driving age.

"And that's something that, whenever there's not any traffic around me, I always turn on my brights now and I'm looking like down the road," he said. "I don't look at the car in front of me. I think that's probably the thing that's change the most."

Maxwell believes in God.

"You know, my mortality is something that I come to terms with every day I put a uniform on, and when you're a believer, it's something that I really don't fear," he said. "I just go out, I do my job and I just try to keep it moving."

He said his children pray for him every night, and he prays for the victim he saved.

"You know, after that night, like, whenever I do go through something tough, I pray for everyone that's involved," Maxwell said. "Because I know that there are things that do stick with you and there's things that we carry with us that we don't tell our family members, and when we pulled this guy, I knew that he had a long road ahead of him."

Maxwell is hopeful the man who survived the horrific wrong-way crash lives with hope.

"He does have the gift of life," Maxwell said. "I haven't spoke to him. I've never met him. Maybe one day I could, you know, just to see how the journey, you know, on this road to recovery has been for him. Because that night, I wasn't even sure if he was gonna survive."

He has often thought of what he would say.

"I would just tell him to, to be encouraged," Maxwell said. "I know that his way of life has been altered forever. But as long as you, you're still here on this earth, you have a chance to chance to make things better."

Maxwell said he believes people who drive impaired or endanger others behind the wheel should be held accountable for their actions.

He doesn't know what the victim thinks about the driver who came down his lane in the wrong direction, altering his life forever, but he would like the man he saved to focus on his own future and personal potential.

"I would just encourage him to not hold on to any grudges and just try to move forward in his own life," Maxwell said. "He can't change what happened. But you can change the outcome of your life."