Grieving mother hopes to save drivers' lives with proposed law

Posted at 5:30 PM, Nov 03, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-04 01:35:59-04

A grieving mother is hoping to protect drivers on the road with a new law named after her late son.

It would be called the "Buddy Alert" and would require state officials to treat wrong way driver calls like Amber Alerts or Silver Alerts, and get messages out on electronic billboards along the affected highways immediately.

Deb Scarlett lost her son 32-year-old Christopher Ruiz to a wrong way drunk driver in January 2016. She strongly feels had electronic billboards alerted her son of the danger ahead, he may have not died.

"My son passed several LED signs heading toward that driver. Had the signs had an alert my son would have had an opportunity to exit the expressway or freeway safely. The first call came in at the 12 mile marker, and this driver drove an additional 12 miles prior to killing my son."

RELATED: Family of Christopher Ruiz speaks after his death

While this drunk driver was heading down the freeway for 12 miles, Scarlett said several people called 911 to report what was going on. She wants to know why this information had not been posted on any of the electronic billboards.

DPS officials said they usually tried to get the information on the boards as soon as possible, but sometimes there was a delay as callers did not know where they were. They also had to relay the information to ADOT who controlled the billboards.

ABC15 reached out to ADOT to find out what the protocol is to get "wrong way driver" information posted on the billboards.  How quickly are they getting it done?"

In a statement a spokesman said: "ADOT traffic operators begin activating the appropriate overhead boards as soon as word arrives of a wrong-way incident. The first word of a wrong-way incident is usually a call or calls to 911. When that information is entered in the Arizona Department of Public Safety computer-aided dispatch system, ADOT’s traffic operators act immediately to activate overhead message boards in that area of freeway. However, because these incidents happen very quickly, the first report that a wrong-way incident has occurred can be a reported crash."

Through November 2, DPS officials have received 1,404 wrong way calls for service so far this year. 88 of those resulted in arrests and there were 23 crashes involving injury or a fatal collision.

ADOT has been testing technology to alert drivers of a wrong way driver headed their way for more than a year. 

Following a research study that concluded in November 2015, ADOT began development of a pilot project that includes the use of existing traffic-flow sensors to detect and track wrong-way vehicles entering a freeway. The in-pavement sensors currently track traffic going in the right direction. ADOT is working toward the final design of the prototype “detection and warning system” that would be deployed on a stretch of I-17 in Phoenix. The goal is to alert law enforcement to a wrong-way vehicle as soon as possible while also allowing ADOT to quickly post warning messages for other freeway drivers.

Separately, ADOT has also been testing wrong-way vehicle detectors, manufactured by private companies, along several freeway off-ramps in the Valley. Such detectors are another countermeasure to alert ADOT and DPS. The testing is not limited to the Phoenix area. ADOT also is examining detectors along ramps at a couple of I-40 interchanges in northern Arizona (one interchange in Kingman and another in Holbrook). The results of this testing will help in the development of the I-17 prototype system (mentioned above).

Since 2014, ADOT has been adding larger and lowered “Wrong-Way” and “Do Not Enter” signs along dozens of highway off-ramps around the state. The agency also has added large white arrows pointing the “right way” on the pavement of many off-ramps.

Scarlett said she appreciates the efforts being made by DPS and ADOT but felt what she was proposing was much cheaper, and would use technology already in place.

"They've been testing that thing for a long time. In the interim we're losing innocent lives. This is such a simple, simple assistance we can offer a safe driver trying to get home," said Scarlett.

She just got word that state lawmakers were interested in exploring the "Buddy Alert." A legislative file has just been opened by Representative David Livingston, according to Kathleen Winn, who was helping Scarlett with her effort.

The Buddy Alert petition posted online has already gathered hundreds of signatures.

Scarlett hopes Governor Doug Ducey will pay attention and meet with her in the near future to discuss the proposal.