New FHP alert system shows wrong-way driving is soaring

Instant alerts, instant response

When Sgt. Kim Montes' cell phone beeped this past weekend, several of the text messages she received were instant alerts for wrong-way drivers. All FHP supervisors received the same alerts, along with FHP dispatchers, within three seconds of detection of a wrong-way driver.

"This has accelerated at such a rapid pace," said Montes. "This problem, we're seeing this daily, sometimes two to three times a day, of wrong-way drivers on limited-access roads, which is I-95, I-4, the Turnpike."

Over the past few days, the text-message instant-alert system was activated as part of the off-ramp detection system now in place on 24 exits on Expressway Authority-operated highways - S.R. 408 and S.R. 417. The detection system warns drivers with high-intensity flashing lights that he or she has entered the highway going the wrong way. If the driver continues onto the highway, cameras capture an image of the vehicle and instantly alert law enforcement in order to dispatch patrols to the area.

But with the activation of the system, troopers realized that several drivers each day were entering local highways going in the wrong direction.

Often, drivers see the flashing lights and turn around.

Some don't and continue onto the highway, endangering oncoming traffic.

On October 21, a driver behind the wheel of a heavy-duty Hummer SUV traveled for 3 miles on the 417 going the wrong way and crashed into 3 vehicles, causing serious injuries. Troopers said he was intoxicated.

Troopers said drivers also cross into oncoming traffic on local roads every day.

Sgt. Montes said since October 2014, troopers have received 452 reports of wrong-way drivers on Central Florida roadways.

Tuesday afternoon, a driver in DeBary was killed by a wrong-way driver on U.S. 17-92.

Sgt. Montes said the wrong-way driver detection system installed on the 408 and 417 is a life-saver.

"Instead of trying to wait for a frantic caller who has seen a wrong way driver is, we instantly know and then they can start looking at the cameras," said Sgt. Montes. "Three seconds from the time a wrong-way driver activates the wrong-way driving system at a ramp -- we are notified within 3 seconds."

Montes said the Turnpike is testing a detection system in South Florida but currently the system is not installed on the Central Florida section of the Turnpike.

Recent dashboard camera video from an FHP patrol car recorded on the Turnpike shows troopers racing to intercept a wrong-way driver closing in on a busy toll booth at highway speeds. Troopers located the driver only feet and seconds before he slammed into the toll booth and cars entering the toll-booth. Troopers said he was elderly, suffering from dementia.

"You know this technology helps law enforcement get results by knowing about the wrong-way driver within seconds, where before we had to wait for someone to call it in and then respond," said Sgt. Montes.

Montes said patrols are dispatched to the area as soon as the alert is received.

Montes said most often wrong-way drivers are intoxicated or simply confused, suffering from dementia. She blamed the rise in wrong-way driving on a growing population.

Montes recommends staying in the right lane, especially at night. Drivers traveling in the wrong direction tend to stay in the left lane, believing they are on the correct side of the road when they see oncoming traffic in the right lane.

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