ORLANDO, Fla. – When you’re driving on a highway late at night, what scares you the most? The sudden headlights of a wrong-way driver staring straight at you?
Orlando has a dangerous track record of wrong-way driving. But most times, wrong-way driving in Orlando doesn’t end in a crash.
It’s because of one of the best and most-advanced wrong-way detection systems in the entire country that the managers of the Orlando highway system invented.
The idea was born out of tragedy in 2012.
On a typically steamy summer night in August that year, something happened on a Florida roadway that nothing, or no one really, could prevent: a driver bent on ending his life drove up the exit ramp and into oncoming traffic on a major Orlando highway and within seconds met his demise, head on, at the expense of an innocent driver - a father and husband.
Both men died almost instantly when the two cars collided with the force of a small bomb, exploding and burning.
Brian Hutchings, the Central Florida Expressway’s Manager of Communications, remembers that night and the next few months vividly.
“The grieving family showed up to our board meeting and asked the board there directly, ‘We have suffered this horrible tragedy. You had a wrong-way driver. We want CFX to look at ways to combat this problem.’ And it was from that family addressing our board that this really came about,” Hutchings said.
The Central Florida Expressway Authority operates most of the highways across the Orlando area, including the 408, the biggest and busiest that runs right through Orlando where the innocent driver was hit head-on and killed.
Hutchings immediately understood the Authority had to do something. But what? Where would they start? They didn’t even know how bad the problem was.
“That’s when we teamed with UCF [University of Central Florida] because we didn’t know,” Hutchings said. “We wanted to be research-based before we threw up something and spent a bunch of money. We wanted to understand the problem and what was available out there.”
There was no blueprint. An effective, all-encompassing wrong-way detection system didn’t exist anywhere, according to Hutchings.
It just so happened, a professor at the University of Central Florida in Orlando knew exactly where to begin.
Professor Haitham al-Deek at UCF’s College of Engineering and Computer Science was an expert in transportation research. Together with his engineering students, they proposed a comprehensive system.
Wrong-way signs outlined with obnoxiously bright LED lights flash when detecting a wrong-way driver. Cameras capture a car when it drives up the wrong ramp.
Fiber-optic connections instantaneously send the alert to the Orlando traffic management system and state troopers’ cellphones and overhead digital signs to warn wrong-way drivers to turn around before they get onto the highway. And if they don’t, to warn innocent drivers about what lies ahead and warn troopers so they can get there in time.
“It’s not terribly expensive,” Hutchings said. “Our whole system cost about $5 million to implement the 65 detection systems throughout our systems. That’s 55 on our on-ramps and 10 on the mainline in various places.”
As far as Hutchings knows, no one else in the country has anything as sophisticated.
“This is a very unique system,” Hutchings said.
When the system started going in in 2015, the first surprise was how bad the problem really was.
“Nobody knew,” Hutchings said.
Troopers knew most wrong-way driving happens at night because a driver is drunk or tired or confused or, like the tragedy in 2012, suicidal.
“[We’ve had] 1,200 detected wrong-way driving events [since 2015], and over 1,000 of those resulted in turnarounds,” Hutchings said. “So the system worked by preventing the vehicles from actually getting on the main line.”
In the past seven years, 1,225 drivers have tried to get onto Central Florida’s toll roads going the wrong way.
The second surprise was 1,070 of them turned around before entering the highway -- that’s an 87% success rate.
“Eventually, it’s going to be a question of why don’t you have one in place, not if,” Hutching said. “It’s going to be a no-brainer.”
Reinforcing the system’s success, UCF has documented a 66% drop in 911 calls for wrong-way drivers.
The Expressway Authority continues to improve the wrong-way detection system by adding more cameras, infrared vehicle detection and LI-DAR -- using lasers instead of radar.
But despite all that, it still happens. Sue Santoro was nearly hit by a wrong-way driver.
“The driver came at us the wrong way, we saw their headlights, it was pouring rain and the car in front of me stopped,” Santoro said. “I don’t know how I did not hit the car in front of me. And then the car that was coming the wrong way came around the left side of us and moved around the left shoulder. I just continue going forward and I thank God I was alive. My heart started pounding so bad after it happened, I barely made it home. I just went to bed when I got home I was freaked out.”
Last year, a suspected drunken driver on the wrong side of another Orlando toll road went for five miles with a trooper on the right side, screaming at him over the megaphone to stop. Somehow, that driver didn’t crash.
But on the same day we were doing our interviews for this story, studying the success of the Expressway Authority’s system, a failure: a driver did crash, head on.
Hutchings insisted it wasn’t a failure of the system though -- that part worked. The wrong-way signs flashed red and the driver blew through them.
But the driver crashed so quickly, about a minute after getting onto the highway, that there was no time to warn innocent drivers and dispatch troopers.
Lt. Tara Crescenzi, of the Florida Highway Patrol, said when crashes occur that’s often the case.
“We still had the overhead signage, but it depended if someone saw it and alerted us in enough time before the crash happened,” Crescenzi said. “That morning, it was not enough time. We have to look at the driver’s actions. Someone went up the wrong way. That’s what happened here. The technology is great, our relationships with our partners are great for us to try and deter a wrong-way motorist, but it all came down to a man driving up the wrong way.”
When technology fails to turn around a wrong-way driver, troopers are the last line of defense. Trooper Toni Shuck was in March when a suspected drunken driver barreled through barricades onto a highway closed for a Sunday morning race over a Tampa bridge. That trooper used her patrol car to block the driver and protect thousands of runners.
“You have to look a driver’s actions when you have hundreds of thousands of motorists navigating all over Central Florida and something like this doesn’t happen,” Crescenzi said. “So this is not a technology flaw, we’re not lacking any technology. It’s driver’s actions and that’s with a lot of the crashes we see.”
The Florida Highway Patrol agreed the wrong-way detection system is working well; drivers are turning around, crashes have dropped and troopers are getting the alerts.
After all, 87% of the time wrong-way drivers do not end up continuing onto Central Florida’s toll roads.
But to get to 100%? What if a driver is so drunk that they miss the flashing lights? Or what if a driver is so suicidal that they don’t care about the flashing lights?
“To get to 100% will require everybody’s participation,” Hutchings said. “It’s going to require motorists to be alert, not be impaired, and it’s going to require systems like this that are continuously upgraded and implemented throughout all interchanges.”