Effort to thwart wrong-way drivers could fail

Go back in the files and add it all up, and the number of wrong-way drivers in the past year alone may surprise you.

Since a year ago last March, there have been more than two dozen incidents, 14 on local roads and 12 on limited access roads or highways. Three of those incidents have resulted in fatalities, five in people being hospitalized with injuries, according to The Day's archives.

So what will be the fate, then, of Senate Bill No. 772, titled "An act providing for the installation of 'wrong way' tire spikes at the end of limited access highway ramps?"

The spikes would puncture the tires of any vehicle driving the wrong way on a limited access highway entrance ramp, preventing the driver from getting onto the highway and causing the following kind of death and/or mayhem:

• In December, Ellen H. Noordzy, 21, of Exeter, R.I., driving south in the northbound lane of I-95 in North Stonington, struck and critically injured Bruce A. Wall, 22, of Hyde Park, Mass., and Evan G. Williamson, 21, of Brewster, Mass.

• In August, Shawn Osinski, 51, of Centerbrook, traveling the wrong way on I-84 in Hartford, struck and killed motorcyclist James Glee, 29, of East Haven.

• Last March, Lance Lewis, 36, of Batavia, N.Y., driving his Honda CRV southbound in the northbound lane of I-95 in Mystic, struck and killed himself and Terrence Garbuzinski, 46, of North Attleboro, Mass.

Fortunately, police tend to stop most wrong-way drivers before they can get into an accident, which is, in part, why the number of wrong-way accidents is a small percentage of the total number for the state in any given year.

But a tally for the past 12 months shows that - in The Day's coverage area at least - there are on average two reports of wrong-way drivers per month.

All that being said, it's unlikely, its sponsor said Friday, that the bill will pass.

Sen. John A. Kissell, R-Enfield, said he introduced the bill at the request of a constituent.

"I do outreach to my constituents, and anybody that puts forward a bill that I think is not outrageous, I'll introduce it," he said. "And I was pleasantly surprised that the Transportation Committee gave it a hearing.

"We have had an increase of folks driving the wrong way on our highways, apparently, and struggling to get our arms around that issue, this seemed like one idea."

But when the bill came up for a hearing last week, James P. Redeker, the acting commissioner of the state Department of Transportation, objected to it on several grounds, not the least of which would be the cost.

"Based on the 760 exit ramps from limited access highways in the state, the installation of tire puncturing devices on all off ramps could be expected to cost approximately $22 million," Redeker said.

Given the state of the state's finances these days, Kissell said Friday, "that $22 million figure ... will probably push it right off the table."

The DOT had a number of other objections, said Kevin Nursick, a spokesman for the agency.

"Spikes on off-ramps pose a variety of problems," he said. "One in particular is for first responders who often need to access highways to get to accidents, and they have to use ramps going in the wrong direction to get there. Obviously, spikes would impede that access."

Nursick also pointed out the spikes would pose problems to snowplows in the winter, which often have to go back and forth to clear the snow from the ramps.

And the spikes themselves could pose a safety hazard, Redeker pointed out, by stopping a car in its tracks at the end of an exit ramp, where it could "place motorists in danger of being hit head-on by traffic that is utilizing the exit ramp."

State Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, chairman of the transportation committee, conceded that, given the cost and other issues, spikes may not be the solution.

But, he said, "The challenge with DOT, I've discovered, is that they are very reluctant to do anything at specific exits without it being systemwide," because the agency might be held liable if an accident occurs at a site where they haven't made the same changes. "It's frustrating, because you can have certain exits where it's a problem."

But the real problem, Nursick said, isn't one of infrastructure; it's one of people. There are ample signs and warnings to prevent drivers from entering the highway the wrong way. Those who miss them tend to be driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs or even, in some cases, bent on suicide.

"There really isn't technology to deal with this issue," Nursick said. "The problem is the people, the driver. It's about people driving drunk. That is the heart of the issue."

Kissell begged to differ.

"I don't think it's always alcohol or drug abuse," he said. "Sometimes it's seniors who get confused or it's foggy out and someone can't see."

Perhaps spikes aren't the answer he conceded, "but that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep looking for ways to stop this ... . We owe it to ourselves because these incidents do occur, and they break families and cause great tragedy."

k.robinson@theday.com

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