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Interstate 17 ramp-meter lights used to warn drivers about wrong-way car

(AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX — Drivers may be tempted to blow through those pesky traffic flow lights at on-ramps along the Interstate 17, but officials with the Arizona Department of Transportation said that those lights could warn them about a wrong-way driver in the area.

Doug Nintzel with the Arizona Department of Transportation told KTAR News 92.3 FM that drivers who see a ramp-meter light stay red for more than a few seconds should not enter the highway, because it could mean that a wrong-way driver has been detected within three miles of the area.

“The ramp meter will turn on in an effort to hold traffic from entering the I-17 until the system no longer detects the vehicle in the area,” he said.

Nintzel said the department wants to make drivers more aware of this part of its pilot wrong-way vehicle detection system, which was launched along the highway in January.

Those lights will stay activated if the system continues to detect the vehicle along the freeway. They will return to their normal mode if the system detects that the wrong-way vehicle is no longer in the area.

However, Nintzel stressed that no system is fool-proof: “We will continue to stress that no system can prevent all crashes.”

The system features 90 thermal detection cameras positioned above exit ramps as well as the mainline of the freeway between the I-10 “Stack” interchange near downtown and the Loop 101 interchange in north Phoenix.

When a wrong-way vehicle enters an off-ramp, the system will trigger an illuminated wrong-way sign in order to get the driver’s attention. It will also alert ADOT’s Traffic Operations Center and the Arizona Department of Public Safety to respond to the area.

It has since detected more than 30 wrong-way vehicles entering I-17 off-ramps and frontage roads. The majority of those drivers have turned around before entering the freeway, but one driver was found on the freeway last month by the system.

Arizona Department of Public Safety staff logged more than 1,700 calls about wrong-way drivers on the freeways and highways last year.

Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill in March that made driving the wrong way on a freeway while impaired a felony.

KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Nailea Leon contributed to this report. 

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