TTI Demonstrates New Tech Aimed at Mitigating Wrong-Way Driving Crashes

On Aug. 17, reporters and transportation agency representatives gathered under a tent near a repurposed runway at The Texas A&M University System’s RELLIS Campus. They watched as Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) Research Engineer Melisa Finley — known for her innovative studies on wrong-way drivers — led a first-of-its-kind and successful connected-vehicle demonstration funded by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).

Melisa Finley speaking
TTI Research Engineer Melisa Finley describes for attendees how new technology can help prevent wrong-way driving crashes.

Finley was joined by Senior Research Analyst Cameron Mott of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), and before the demonstration, both described for attendees how the system would operate.

Dedicated short-range communications radios mounted along the roadway were set up to detect a connected vehicle as it entered a highway exit ramp from the wrong direction. Integration with existing detectors would provide multiple alerts, one of them triggering a wrong-way warning sign, viewable to the driver along the roadway. Meanwhile, another connected vehicle would travel in the correct direction and encounter the wrong-way driving vehicle. Warnings displayed in both vehicles would alert drivers that a vehicle was moving in the wrong direction, and a traffic management center (displayed to the crowd on a monitor) was set to be immediately notified of the incident. A nearby law enforcement vehicle would also receive notification that a wrong-way driving event was taking place.

All of it played out as promised, and members of the crowd were invited to ride inside the vehicles as researchers repeated the demonstration multiple times.

Currently, about 240 wrong-way driving events are reported each year on Texas freeways. Previous research by Finley has shown that most wrong-way drivers are inebriated. Her research also showed that flashing wrong-way signs implemented along San Antonio’s US 281 corridor resulted in a 38 percent decrease in wrong-way driving incidents. Based on Finley’s findings, TxDOT is currently expanding its use of flashing wrong-way signs in San Antonio, Fort Worth and Houston.

wrong-way driver warning message displayed on a mobile device in a vehicle driving during a technology demonstration held at RELLIS Campus

“Countermeasures do work, but, unfortunately, because drivers are under the influence of alcohol, they will continue to drive the wrong way. With this technology, we can warn innocent drivers and give them the chance to react before they encounter the wrong-way vehicle. Law enforcement could also receive information about the wrong-way driver in their patrol vehicle, giving them a head start in preventing a crash,” Finley says.

The project, Connected Vehicle Wrong-Way Driving Detection and Mitigation Demonstration, began in February 2015 as a joint effort between TTI and SwRI. TxDOT chose to fund it under its innovative research project program. In addition to developing a proof-of-concept system, researchers also conducted human factors studies to investigate the in-vehicle information needs of right-way drivers when a wrong-way driving event occurs.

“There are more than 32,000 high-end luxury vehicles on the road today that came equipped from the factory with connected-vehicle technology,” Mott states. “I could see this providing an improvement to the safety of travelers as early as 2020.”

Although the demonstration project has ended, TxDOT is considering a new phase of wrong-way driving research. It’s possible that a specific Texas roadway could become part of a connected-vehicle, wrong-way driving test location.

“One of TxDOT’s goals is to reduce crashes and fatalities by continuously improving guidelines and innovations. So far, this project has been a success,” states TxDOT Research Project Manager Darrin Jensen. “TTI’s researchers have done a wonderful job of helping prepare TxDOT for the fast-approaching connected-vehicle environment. We need to continue to assure that Texas is ready.”