Wrong-way driver involved in crash near SR-51 and Thomas Road

sr51 wrong way driver
Posted at 4:32 AM, Feb 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-04 20:01:31-05

PHOENIX — Arizona Department of Public Safety officials say two people were hurt in a wrong-way crash early Friday morning.

Around 1:30 a.m., DPS received a call about a driver headed southbound in the northbound lanes of State Route 51 near Northern Avenue.

A short time later, the wrong-way vehicle collided head-on with another vehicle near Thomas Road.

The occupants of both vehicles were injured, but the seriousness of those injuries is not yet known.

“It worries me a lot,” said Bella Garcia.

Garcia says she has been on the freeway when a wrong-way driver was coming toward her.

“There’s times I think about not taking the 51 or even taking the freeway and I’m like, should I even go late to work and take the streets,” she added.

Though she isn’t alone.

Kenneth Polk says there’s a reason his wife sits in the passenger seat.

“Oh yeah, she is scared. Be screaming and hollering…you act like you don’t see him coming,” Polk told ABC15.

Polk says he drove trucks for 25 years, and quickly learned to always be prepared.

“Always make sure you have somewhere to go. To the right. To the left. Get out of the way,” he added.

Though Attorney Blake Mayes, with the MayesTelles Law Firm, says Polk shouldn’t have to worry about wrong-way drivers.

“We have a number of cases on the personal injury side where we’ve seen fatalities that could have been avoided with things like road design, spike strips, lighting, signage, notices,” said Mayes.

Which is why Mayes started a petition, weeks ago, urging Arizona leaders to step up and help stop what he‘s calling an epidemic.

“The time to act is now. The time to act was years ago,” Mayes told ABC15.

He says road designs across the Valley are confusing, and cars should be able to be stopped right when they enter the off-ramps.

“I think it would be easy to use the wrong-way treadles that you see in a parking garage. Imagine if you instead of having a wrong-way fatality you'd just had a wrong-way driver with flats on the side of the road,” Mayes added.

ADOT, however, says spike strips are not a viable option to stopping wrong-way drivers for several safety reasons.

So far this year there’ve been four wrong-way driving incidents:

“They need to do something to stop wrong-way driving from happening on our Valley freeways,” said Mayes.

By this time in 2020, we recorded three major wrong-way incidents. That number jumped to seven by this time in 2021.

For context, there were 16 total wrong-way incidents in 2020 and that number doubled in 2021.

“You know, I’d ask our leaders to take action, to look into this more, and to start turning the statics the other way,” said Mayes.

ABC15 also reached out to the Arizona Department of Transportation, and while ADOT did not respond directly to the petition, here’s what the department said:

“The use of thermal cameras to detect wrong-way vehicles at freeway off-ramps in the Phoenix area is being expanded over time, as funding becomes available, as a way to help law enforcement respond faster compared to waiting for 911 calls from other drivers.

Such technology cannot prevent someone from becoming a wrong-way driver nor can it physically prevent crashes. Research over time has shown a majority of wrong-way drivers involved in fatal crashes were impaired.

In conjunction with ADOT’s first-in-the-nation project to test wrong-way vehicle detection and warning technology along a stretch of I-17 in Phoenix, which began operating in 2018, the agency has moved forward in recent years with using key components of that system, including thermal cameras, at a number of other freeway interchanges.

For example, thermal cameras now operate at off-ramps along sections of the Loop 101 Price Freeway in the southeast Valley, the Loop 101 Pima Freeway in the north Valley, the Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway and Loop 303 in the West Valley.

When a vehicle is detected (by a thermal camera) entering an off-ramp in the wrong direction, an alert is immediately sent to ADOT and the Department of Public Safety, allowing troopers to be quickly notified while ADOT dispatchers post “wrong-way vehicle warning messages” on electronic signs in the area and work to locate the vehicle via the agency’s network of closed-circuit freeway cameras.

The I-17 Wrong-Way Vehicle Detection and Warning System between the I-10 “Stack” interchange and the Loop 101 interchange (15 miles) has detected more than 250 vehicles (since Jan. 2018). ADOT’s assessment of the I-17 pilot system has shown that the majority of wrong-way drivers detected entering an off-ramp turned around (self-corrected) without entering the freeway itself. The technology has allowed for faster notification and response times by law enforcement and played a role in incidents where troopers were able to stop a wrong-way vehicle prior to a crash occurring.

In addition to thermal detection cameras already installed (along freeways mentioned above), ADOT will work with the Maricopa Association of Governments, the Phoenix region’s freeway planning agency, on plans for expanding the thermal camera technology as funding becomes available.”

ABC15 also reached out to Governor Ducey’s Office, and while they also didn't respond directly to the petition, here’s what they said:

“Governor Ducey has taken numerous actions to make Arizona's roads safer. In 2017, the Governor partnered with the Arizona Department of Transportation and Department of Public Safety to install a thermal camera system on the I-17 that detects wrong-way vehicles entering the highway. The year after, he signed legislation which ensures that wrong-way drivers under the influence will face felony charges. Governor Ducey is grateful for the law enforcement officers who patrol our roads, protect Arizonans and keep our communities safe.”