It’s a high-tech sign of the times that Thruway officials hope will save lives by preventing motorists from driving the wrong way onto the state’s superhighway.
A pair of Doppler radar-assisted LED-illuminated signs made their statewide debut Wednesday on a Niagara Thruway exit ramp at Porter Avenue on Buffalo’s West Side.
And even in broad daylight, the signs at Exit 9’s southbound off-ramp, not far from the Peace Bridge, were hard to miss as crews finished pouring concrete to anchor them.
In bold capital letters, which changed from red to white, the signs flashed alternate alerts: “WRONG WAY,” “STOP” and “PULL OVER.”
This section of the Thruway was selected because it is believed this is where an 87-year-old Kenmore man on July 9, 2012, drove the wrong way onto that exit ramp in his sport utility vehicle and later struck a southbound car head-on on Grand Island, killing three tourists from Michigan.
The flashing sign-alerts are triggered when microwave signals traveling from radar beacons affixed to the top of each sign detect objects heading onto the Exit 9 ramp, which is located in a busy area of roadways and has been known to confuse motorists looking to enter the Niagara Thruway.
At night, the LED lights, which stand for “light-emitting diodes,” will be even harder to miss because they are much brighter than traditional high-pressure sodium lighting fixtures used on roadways. The screens on the signs are about 2 feet tall and 3 feet wide and attached to posts about 8 feet off the ground.
In the 2012 crash, Richard Hildebrand entered the Niagara Thruway the wrong way shortly before 12:45 a.m. and managed to drive several miles north in the southbound lanes, narrowly missing motorists before the head-on collision just north of Grand Island’s Staley Road overpass. Hildebrand, who died in May, was never charged. In the other car, only the driver survived the crash.
“In the future, we’ll be identifying other areas where serious accidents have occurred,” Thruway Executive Director Thomas J. Madison said. “The New York State Thruway is the only superhighway in the United States that’s using the Doppler radar-assisted LED sign technology.”
Another benefit of the signs is that other motorists will soon be alerted when a wrong-way driver heads onto the Exit 9 southbound ramp, according to Madison. “When we connect to our fiber optic system, the signs will actually trigger messages to motorists that are already on the Thruway system, alerting them that there may be a wrong-way vehicle,” he said.
Those bigger, overhead LED signs are already in place on the different branches of the local interstate highway network to alert motorists of traffic delays, accidents and other public emergencies.
When the fatal Grand Island collision happened, a number of motorists driving south on the Niagara Thruway near the Peace Bridge called 911 on their cellphones to report that they were passed by a northbound SUV.
State troopers responded by making a desperate attempt to catch up with the errant vehicle moments before the crash. In the days after the collision, police said alcohol did not appear to play a role, and authorities speculated that the elderly driver might have been disoriented.
However, alcohol often is involved when motorists drive the wrong way, especially in the middle of the night, according to police.
Earlier this year, the Thruway bolstered efforts to prevent wrong-way driving by painting oversized white arrows on the pavement of exit-ramp lanes. Until then, traditional metal signs painted red with bold white letters stating “WRONG WAY” carried the message.
Is the high-tech addition a step in the right direction?
Michelle Paradiso, a motorist who stopped at the end of the Exit 9 southbound ramp, gave a thumbs-up.
“I’ve seen people get on the wrong way here several times, so these signs are a good idea,” she said.
Buffalo truck driver Bill Webb wasn’t so sure. “It’s a small percentage of people who drive the wrong way. I think the metal signs are fine and these new signs are a waste of taxpayers’ money,” said Webb, who has driven a truck for two decades.
The signs, designed by Thruway engineer Steve Velicky and manufactured at upstate factories, cost $10,000 each.
Christopher Maczynski, a trucker from Fort Erie, Ont., who stopped briefly at the end of the exit ramp, said the signs are needed. “They can prevent wrong-way drivers,” he said.
State Police Superintendent Joseph A. D’Amico – whose troopers are assigned to Troop T, which polices the Thruway – said the technology is cutting-edge.
“The State Police supports any technology that can save lives and prevent injuries,” D’Amico said.
A section of Thruway downstate in Nyack soon will get the second set of the signs, Madison said.
The signs are being located in the area where a deadly five-car crash occurred on the Tappan Zee Bridge after a motorist drove the wrong way onto the Thruway, then onto the bridge, in July. More of the signs will be installed along the 570-mile Thruway as reviews are done to determine where they are needed.