Crime Watch: Improvements to I-35 in Austin to help officers stop wrong-way drivers

TxDOT officials here in Austin are working on improvements along I-35 that will help in the effort to stop wrong-way drivers.

Seven people have lost their lives in the past seven months in and around Austin because of wrong-way drivers.

In this week’s Crime Watch FOX 7's Noelle Newton shows the future of wrong-way intervention.

On Veteran's Day of last year, Army veteran Domonick Turner was killed when he was struck by wrong-way driver John McClintock.

Police say McClintock was covered in vomit and admitted to drinking before getting behind the wheel.

As he made his way out of Austin, an APD officer tried to stop him.

"With his lights and siren on, trying to use his spotlight to get the suspect's attention in an effort to make him realize he was driving the wrong way and stop, so he wouldn't cause what ultimately ended up happening,” said APD Detective Richard Mabe.

Detective Richard Mabe fights drinking and driving daily as a member of APD's DWI unit. As a trainer, he's well-versed in why intoxicated drivers behave the way they do and offers insight as to why McClintock may not have seen the officer.

"In this case, hitting him with a spotlight, he's driving like this he's intoxicated, he can't see the spotlight to the side. He's lost his peripheral vision."

Domonick Turner was one of seven people to lose their lives to wrong-way drivers in and around Austin since August of last year.

The most recent case was captured on surveillance cameras at Mitchell Motorsports in Kyle. Four people were killed when a Texas State student crashed into their van.

The problem is much more severe to our south. San Antonio police respond to 200 to 300 9-1-1 calls of wrong-way drivers per year.

Recently, TxDOT officials there showed us how they use traffic cameras to help police track and intercept wrong-way drivers. Each time a wrong-way driver is called in dispatch sounds a tone to nearby officers. Message boards are then illuminated to warn other drivers.

They also utilize flashing wrong way signs and wrong-way sensors on exit ramps.

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

TxDOT officials in the Austin district say a $30 million traffic management system upgrade is currently underway that will--as an added benefit--allow them to better assist law enforcement with issues such as wrong-way driving.

It starts with adding 92 more cameras from the Williamson/Bell County line on I-35 on down to the Hays/Comal County line.

As you can see on TxDOT's website, cameras are scarce downtown.

By this summer, enough cameras will be installed so that traffic officials will be able seamlessly follow vehicles from the 130 Toll in Georgetown to Woodward in South Austin.

44 more message boards will be installed so that traffic officials may instantly pop up important alerts to drivers.

Police dispatchers already sit among TxDOT employees inside the city's combined transportation, emergency and communication center.

The flashing wrong-way signs are currently not on the radar as TxDOT officials have not seen a pattern of several wrong-way drivers getting onto 35 through any one particular exit ramp.

However, a spokesperson says, if any method being tested in San Antonio proves successful, it will be considered here.

Detective Mabe is all for that.

"If we as a community can come together and prevent a wrong-way driver who may or may not be intoxicated from hurting themselves or others by signage, by tones, by message boards I think we absolutely need to look into that and make a difference,” said Mabe.

The downtown portion of the camera and message board project will be running by the end of the month or early next month.

It will take another two years to have the full project area, which extends from toll 130 in Georgetown to the Woodward exit here in Austin, complete.

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