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Officials seek solutions to wrong-way drivers on I-95

Stonington — The town’s two state legislators say they again are urging the state Department of Transportation to take immediate action to prevent wrong-way drivers from accessing Interstate 95 at Exits 91-93.

The comments by state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, and Rep. Kate Rotella, D-Mystic, came after an incident late last Saturday night when a Stonington police officer was able to intercept a wrong-way driver on Interstate 95 before he could crash into other vehicles. It was the second time in four days that a Stonington officer had stopped a wrong-way driver on the highway before an accident occurred.

The two incidents followed a string of three wrong-way drivers over the past 14 months who have entered the highway at exits here, causing serious crashes and killing seven people.

Both Somers and Rotella said that earlier this week they have again reached out to DOT requesting another meeting to discuss the problem and find a solution.

Several months ago the two legislators and local officials met with DOT to discuss the problem and DOT agreed to survey the exits and ended up realigning some of the signs on the exits to help prevent confusion.

Both Rotella and Somers said much more could be done, such as installing lighting that warns drivers they are headed in the wrong direction (something DOT has tested on a ramp in Danbury), placing wrong-way notices on the back of regular traffic signs and using reflective road paint that alerts drivers they are entering the highway in the wrong direction. Over the past week, residents have raised other possibilities, such as the spike strips often seen at airport car rental returns.

“It’s so tragic. We need to do something about this,” Rotella said. "We’re all trying to work on it.”

She and Somers said the exit ramps, which are close together, can be confusing and are not lit as well as they could be. They are pushing for the exits to be included in the pilot lighting project now underway in Danbury.

Somers said she spoke last week to DOT Deputy Commissioner Mark Rolfe and contacted him again this week after the latest incidents. “I made it clear to him that there has been too many incidents. The next one is on the state of Connecticut’s hands,” she said.

Somers said she has pointed out to DOT that Mystic/Stonington is the state’s No. 1 tourist destination, which means many drivers are not familiar with the area and can be confused by the ramps. “It's confusing for residents,” she said.

She added the issue is a priority for her, saying the state can’t wait for another life to be lost while also putting police in jeopardy, such as the Stonington officer who had to follow the wrong-way driver down the highway to stop him last Saturday night.

DOT response

DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said the agency is open to meeting again with legislators, local officials and police to discuss the issue. But he said there is nothing different about the three intersections compared to the 700 others across the state.

Nursick said that while wrong-way accidents make up less than 1 percent of crashes across the country, when they do occur, they have catastrophic consequences. “So, we don’t take them lightly,” he said.

Nursick said that a few years ago, DOT spent $5 million to replace and upgrade the warning signs and markings on all 700 ramps. That included a minimum of six larger signs with more reflective paint and posts that warn drivers they are heading in the wrong direction on each ramp. The signs also were lowered to be in the line of sight for drivers. Large arrows signaling the correct direction of travel were painted on the road.

“We went to extraordinary lengths to get the most visible, well-placed signs on each ramp,” he said. “Wrong-way drivers now face a barrage of signs and marker on the road.”

“But with 700 ramps, we have a lot of exposure,” he said. “Every off-ramp has the potential for a wrong-way driver.”

Nursick stressed that the primary cause of wrong-way drivers on the highway are the influence of alcohol or drugs or diminished mental acuity due to a medical condition or age. Both men involved in the two recent incidents here were elderly. The one who was on the highway was driving with a suspended license, while the other had suffered a medical condition. Two of the recent fatal crashes involved a 17-year-old driver with a suspended license and a man allegedly driving under the influence. Use of cellphones have added another level of distraction, he said.

He said that keeping these types of drivers off the road tends to solve the problem.

Still, when such drivers are on the road, Nursick added, extra warning measures may alert them to the fact they are heading in the wrong direction. He said DOT is analyzing 911 calls to locate “hot spots” where drivers are accessing the highway in the wrong direction but sometimes determining exactly where they got on is difficult, as the driver is deceased or does not remember and there may not have been witnesses.

Nursick said another possible upgrade is to install a straight green arrow light in place of the standard green light at access roads that intersect with a ramp, to further guide drivers away from taking a turn onto an exit ramp. This would apply to drivers heading north on Route 2 to the Exit 92 interchange with I-95.

He said DOT's recently installed new system on an exit in Danbury has a module in the road that can determine wrong-way movement up the ramp and signals lights on the wrong-way signs to begin flashing. The system is expected to become operational later this month.

Nursick said that as self-driving vehicle technology continues to advance, it may not be long before cars themselves will be able to determine if they are headed in the wrong direction and take evasive action.

He said rumble strips have proved effective in decreasing head-on and sideswipe crashes on rural roads.

As for spike strips, Nursick said they pose a number of problems. Once they puncture a tire, he said, the vehicle loses maneuverability to avoid cars coming down the ramp. In addition, he said the spikes would disable a car whose driver quickly realizes his or her mistake and is trying to avoid going on the highway, inhibit emergency vehicles trying to quickly access the highway from the opposite direction, such as when a crash closes part of the highway, and would create problems for snowplows.

“They’re really not a viable option,” he said.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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