- Associated Press - Sunday, January 24, 2016

MIAMI (AP) - It’s a driver’s deadly nightmare.

On a dark highway, amid a sea of taillights, a pair of oncoming headlights suddenly flashes into view.

What happens next is all-too-familiar in South Florida - a violent crash, loss of life, tied-up roads, a complicated investigation and a lengthy cleanup.

A slew of fatal wrong-way crashes have left South Florida drivers reeling, families broken and law enforcement searching for new technology to halt the deadly collisions.

Dr. Carl Schulman, a UHealth trauma surgeon at Ryder Trauma Center in Miami, said victims of wrong-way crashes often suffer chest and internal injuries due to the force of motion in the cars.

“A car is really well-designed to absorb straight-on crashes,” he said. “The more angular the direction of the impact the more likely the occupant is going to suffer injuries.”

Wrong-way crashes are the perfect storm of destructive forces. Two cars ramming into each other at top speed causes a tremendous amount of damage compared to any other type of crash, Schulman said.

Although wrong-way crashes are on the decline on Miami-Dade roads (from a peak of 181 in 2014 to 168 in 2015) and in Broward (from 167 in 2012 to 112 in 2015), the impact they leave is more than crushed metal on the highway.

Gary Catronio has become a face of these accidents, after his daughter Marisa and her friend, Katie, were killed in a wrong-way crash mere miles from her home in the Kayla Mendoza case.

That night, Catronio knew something was wrong when he checked his find-your-phone app. First, it showed his daughter was on the Sawgrass Expressway in West Broward, almost at the exit home. He checked later and the dot was still in the same place.

Catronio sped to the exit closest to the dot on a tip from an emergency worker friend that there was a big accident in the area. Officers stopped him there.

“Just tell me the car out there doesn’t have hearts on the license plate and I’ll leave,” he pleaded.

After four hours of silence, two highway patrol troopers broke the news.

“I dropped,” Catronio said.

More than two years later, he has done his best to find his footing. Catronio and his wife dedicate their spare time to being the voice for wrong-way crash victims. He started a foundation - Marisa’s Way - that lobbies for new legislation, gives scholarships for new ideas to stop crashes and hosts benefit concerts and poker tournaments.

Catronio’s organization leads educational seminars at schools to show kids the impact - physically and emotionally - of driving drunk or distracted.

“That’s what we’re dedicated to - saving lives,” he said.

He picked the right demographic.

The most common age ranges for wrong-way crashes are 16 to 24, and also people older than 65, according to an April report by the Florida Department of Transportation.

Almost half of drivers were DUI at the time of a crash, which is more than 16 times the alcohol or drug involvement for all Florida crashes.

In October 2014, FDOT launched a $400,000 statewide pilot program to experiment with solutions. For at least the next two to three years, sections of Florida’s Turnpike will feature varying bids for the attention of a wrong-way driver.

It’s all about getting inside a driver’s “cone of vision,” said Raj Ponnaluri, a state arterial management systems engineer for the Florida Department of Transportation in Tallahassee.

A drunken driver, as many wrong-way drivers are, has a smaller cone of vision than someone sober. So road engineers came up with a combination of markers to alert drivers to impending error.

In Miami-Dade, six interchanges and 10 ramps on the turnpike have been equipped since late 2014 with large, red, rectangular “wrong way” signs. They’re solar powered and send radar signals out both sides of the sign.

If the radar detects a car is traveling the wrong direction, the LED lights on the sign will flash red and the device will take a series of five pictures of the car. It sends the pictures to Florida Highway Patrol dispatch and the traffic management center for confirmation.

So far, South Florida’s system has caught 23 drivers. All but one turned themselves around without a crash, said Chad Huff, spokesman for Florida’s Turnpike. The single fatality came from a November crash, which wasn’t prevented, even though the technology worked as planned.

In Tampa and St. Petersburg, the red “wrong way” signs have flat strobe lights on the top and bottom that flash when radar detects a wrong-way vehicle. The technology is similar to the strobe lights on pedestrian crossing signs in heavily trafficked areas of St. Petersburg.

In the Panhandle, FDOT is experimenting with long, reflective strips on the road, like stop bars. The strips reflect white, unless a driver is heading the wrong way, in which case they’re bright red. The strips are solar-powered, so they can keep flashing at night.

Another popular idea: the installation of spike strips on exit ramps - a row of metal teeth slanted to bite the tires of wrong-way drivers and offer only a mild bump to drivers heading in the right direction.

But there are good reasons spike strips don’t criss-cross exit ramps. The spines can catch trash, propping them open for indiscriminate tire-slashing.

Even accounting for perfectly clean, cared-for spikes, emergency technicians sometimes must use the exit ramps to enter a highway to get to crime scenes and accidents faster.

The FHP’s Sanchez said the best solutions are the simplest. Be alert. Use common sense. Don’t drive impaired.

“If you’re traveling and you see the signs facing the other direction, hello, there’s your sign,” he said. “If you see red reflectors on the road instead of white, hello, there’s your sign.”

___

Information from: The Miami Herald, https://www.herald.com

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