MIDDLEBOROUGH (State House News Service) – Days after five people died in a crash caused by a car driving the wrong way on Interstate 495, lawmakers floated the idea of more aggressive notifications to drivers traveling the wrong direction on Massachusetts highways.
Four college students were killed in a Middleborough crash early Monday morning when a vehicle driving north in the southbound lanes struck their car head-on, according to the State Police. The driver of the wrong-way car also died, and police continue to investigate.
Rep. Steven Howitt, a Seekonk Republican, referenced the crash during a Joint Committee on Transportation oversight hearing Wednesday, calling it a “horrendous accident.”
Howitt suggested that, in addition to existing “wrong way” or “do not enter” signage, green arrows could be painted onto highway ramps to indicate the appropriate direction of travel. He said because some ramps are positioned close together, it can be difficult for drivers to tell if a sign refers to their ramp or the one next to them.
“It might save a life,” he said of the painted arrows.
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Patricia Leavenworth, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s chief engineer, said she would bring the idea back to the department’s highway traffic and safety unit.
“We have looked at a number of ways to try and reduce the wrong-way drivers,” she said. “We’ve put in additional signs and lane markings and whatnot, but we’re always looking for suggestions.”
The primary origin of wrong-way driving is entering the wrong way on an exit ramp, according to the Transportation Research Board at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Wrong-way collisions account for about 3 percent of crashes on high-speed, divided highways, according to the board, but are much more likely to result in fatal and serious injuries than other crashes.
A 2012 special investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found that a total of 2,139 people died in 1,566 fatal wrong-way crashes on divided highways from 2004 to 2009.
Seventy-eight percent of the wrong-way crashes occurred between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., and 57 percent occurred on weekends, according to the report.
In Rhode Island — where there have been 13 deaths in 10 wrong-way crashes since 2008 — officials last year undertook a $2 million project to upgrade signs and road markings and install detection systems in 24 “high-risk areas.” According to the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, if a driver enters a ramp in the wrong direction in these locations a series of flashing signs will activate and a message will display on overhead electronic signs to alert other drivers. The system also notifies Rhode Island State Police and takes a photo of the vehicle.
Sen. Thomas McGee, who co-chairs the Transportation Committee, said the Rhode Island system makes it “pretty apparent, unless you were almost comatose, I guess, that all of a sudden you’re going in the wrong direction.” The Lynn Democrat said wrong-way crash prevention is “something that I think we need to address.”