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Wrong-way deterrents examined

Parking lots have retractable spike strips to prevent drivers from going the wrong way. Can't the same thing be used on freeway off-ramps (to stop wrong-way drivers)? Seems like very cheap insurance.

— M., via email

M., your question clearly stems from the recent incident in which 42-year-old Richard Webster Scott of Grants Pass drove the wrong way on Interstate 5 — allegedly while intoxicated — and collided with the vehicle driven by 911 dispatcher Karen Greenstein as she drove home from work. Greenstein died at the scene.

It was an unnecessary tragedy that highlights the issue of wrong-way driving. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data shows wrong-way drivers are involved in 1.5 percent of all fatal crashes nationally. Since, January 2011, the Oregon Department of Transportation has documented 77 incidents involving wrong-way drivers between milepost 80 and the California border on I-5. Nearly half of those ended in a crash.

All that to say: This is a serious issue.

As to your proposed solution, ODOT officials say it's been tested before. Unsuccessfully.

In the 1960s, California transportation officials experimented with spikes to stop wrong-way drivers. Those spikes could not cause tires to deflate fast enough to prevent a wrong-way vehicle from entering the freeway, even when the spikes were modified. The spikes also broke in areas of heavy use, which left stubs that damaged the tires on right-way vehicles. Some drivers saw the spikes and jammed on their brakes, causing following vehicles to crash into them.

"Spikes, in addition to being expensive to install, could also prohibit or hinder emergency response should police, fire or ambulances need to reach a blocked crash scene by going the 'wrong way,' " ODOT spokesman Gary Leaming said in an email.

Not to say ODOT hasn't been considering new approaches to stopping the deadly wrong-way crashes, including new methods of alerting wrong-way drivers. The new ways under review include the use of low-cost raised red delineators, lowering the red "wrong way" signs near ramps to better catch the eyes of impaired drivers, and more expensive methods such as embedded sensors and flashing lights.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by e-mail to youasked@mailtribune.com.