Wrong-way drivers lead to $1.4M overhaul of interchanges

By: - July 21, 2021 3:56 pm

The state is installing bigger “Do Not Enter” signs at some interchanges to help prevent wrong-way driving. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Department of Transportation)

Wrong-way drivers kill an average of four Iowans a year, prompting a $1.4 million effort to overhaul 165 interchanges with new signs and pavement markings. 

The Iowa Department of Transportation also has installed about 50 traffic cameras, with 10 more to come later this year, to study how and why drivers are steering into oncoming traffic. 

Whether they are drunk, experiencing poor visibility, or confused, drivers need help finding their way, DOT traffic and safety engineer Willy Sorenson said in an interview. 

The state ranked 465 interchanges statewide, reviewing data from the past seven years or more. The 165 selected seemed to have the most challenges, Sorenson said. 

Statewide, there are about 20 crashes a year involving vehicles traveling the wrong way on a highway, Sorenson said. 

The solution in part is installation of larger “Do Not Enter” signs that are angled so that drivers can see them from farther away should they approach in the wrong direction. The state also is painting arrows on some ramps in the direction of traffic, hoping drivers headed in the opposite direction will turn around when they see them. 

The project started after Ames police reported a number of wrong-way drivers on U.S. Highway 30 between Boone and Nevada, a stretch that includes Ames. A check of data from 911 calls between 2008 and 2010 confirmed a problem. 

DOT installed 24 sets of sensors along the route in 2014. Since then, the state has recorded 228 wrong-way drivers along the 25 miles of highway.

The data didn’t identify all “points of entry,” but did make it clear that many of the wrong turns were happening at intersections, not on ramps, Sorenson said. 

In Cedar Rapids, DOT has used digital overhead message boards to warn drivers when someone ahead of them is driving the wrong way.

More work is possible after the initial interchanges are finished late this year, Sorenson said.

“We’re collecting data. Every time somebody calls, we’re doing that behind-the-scenes investigation on where that wrong-way driver started,” Sorenson said.

The initial work was covered by federal transportation safety grant money.

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.