Crime Watch: San Antonio Wrong-Way Driver Task Force

Recent wrong-way crashes have taken the lives of seven people in and around Austin. The instances are far more frequent in San Antonio. After an officer was killed, police there teamed up with TxDOT to aggressively combat the problem.

In 2011 San Antonio Police Officer Stephanie Brown was killed when a wrong-way driver struck her patrol car head-on.

"It was believed that he was intoxicated. We found receipts from the bar,” said Officer Brian Phelt.

Brown left behind a baby and many friends including Officer Brian Phelt.

The incident captured the attention of TxDOT Traffic Operations Manager Dale Picha.

"That really forced all of us to take a hard look at what more can we be doing,” said Picha.

A wrong-way task force was created and an all-out attack to prevent further crashes ensued.

"In San Antonio it's pretty much the kitchen sink affect. Throw everything at it to try and stop these drivers,” said Picha.

The efforts began by placing a police dispatcher on the floor of the TxDOT TransGuide Operation Center where highway cameras are monitored.

A tone was then created to warn officers whenever a wrong-way driver was called into 9-1-1.

"When a 911 call comes in, they immediately put out an all-points bulletin, a tone on their radio and we get that here and when that radio tone sounds, it's silence for a few seconds until we get specific information from the dispatcher as to where that reported wrong-way driver is,” said Picha.

"No matter what you're doing, you'll stop and listen to your radio because after that tone, something is going to come out,” said Phelt.

Drivers are alerted too through message boards. Operators will illuminate the signs to say "wrong-way driver reported, use extreme caution."

"It's a very hair-raising experience for about five minutes,” said Picha.

San Antonio gets an average of 200 to 300 9-1-1 calls for wrong-way drivers every year. Officers usually don't get to them soon enough as drivers will eventually turn around. Part of that may be due to new wrong-way signs.

Unlike the standard, these versions flash all night. Sensors that detect wrong-way drivers are mounted to them. If a wrong-way driver is detected an alert is sent to TransGuide operators. It is an experimental system that is currently being improved upon.

There are 200 plus exit ramps on San Antonio highways. TxDOT has placed 70 to 80 signs out so far. Phelt says it's working.

"I don't hear as many emergency tones coming out for wrong way drivers,” said Phelt.

Phelt says police departments throughout the country have contacted him to learn more about the program including APD.

Since August of last year, seven people have lost their lives in wrong-way crashes in and around Austin.

The most recent crash was captured on a surveillance camera at Mitchell Motorsports in Kyle. Police say a Texas State student who was intoxicated struck a van killing four people.

While things are improving for San Antonio, Picha continues to research and test new methods.

"I just encourage every agency to just do everything they can to put a stop to this problem,” said Picha.

"I think Stephanie would be happy to know that her sacrifices caused so many positive changes,” said Phelt.

 

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