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Working to keep drivers in the right lane

SANTA FE, N.M. — The deaths of two Santa Feans in a fiery wrong-way accident on Interstate 25 in September – caused by a driver who was extremely intoxicated – raised new concerns about safety and possible design flaws on the stretch of interstate that runs between the Eldorado exit east of town through the city limits.

But state public safety and transportation officials continue to say there are no design problems – despite the frequency of DWI crashes on the interstate around Santa Fe – and that the only way to really fight wrong-way driving is to curb drinking and driving.

“Really, it’s mostly people who are impaired drivers who are doing this and the story isn’t necessarily that there’s an engineering solution,” Loren Hatch, deputy secretary of the New Mexico Department of Transportation, said in a recent interview.

Still, at least a few states are trying some new ideas, using electronic signs and alerts to help prevent wrong-way crashes.

“It has to be a decisional solution for everybody who is going out and drinking and having a good time,” said Hatch. “We see people who make a decision to go out drinking, they decide that they’re going to drive, they end up going the wrong way and tragedy results from it.”

A memorial to Anton Gress, who died at age 23 in a wreck caused by a wrong-way driver on Interstate 25 in September, stands at the site of the crash. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

A memorial to Anton Gress, who died at age 23 in a wreck caused by a wrong-way driver on Interstate 25 in September, stands at the site of the crash. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

In the latest fatal crash, Anton Gress, a 23-year-old bartender at Izanami restaurant at Ten Thousand Waves spa, was driving to his father’s house in Eldorado after work around 11:30 p.m. Sept. 24, according to a report from the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office.

He crested a small hill near on I-25 near El Gancho and his SUV smashed head-on into the car of wrong-way driver 43-year-old Clara Avina of Santa Fe, who was heading south in the interstate’s northbound lanes. The state Office of the Medical Investigator found she had a blood alcohol content of .29 percent, nearly four times the legal presumption of intoxication of .08.

A memorial to Clara Avina, who was driving drunk the wrong way on Interstate 25 and caused a crash that killed her and another driver in September, stands near the spot of the crash. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

A memorial to Clara Avina, who was driving drunk the wrong way on Interstate 25 and caused a crash that killed her and another driver in September, stands near the spot of the crash. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Avina, a records clerk at the State Personnel Office, died from the collision, but Gress was still alive afterward, with his legs pinned underneath the dashboard of his 2013 Volkswagen Tiguan. First responders couldn’t rescue him before flames engulfed the vehicle.

A full crash investigation report by the sheriff’s office released this month said Avina drank two beers and shot of whiskey between 8:20 p.m. and 9:46 p.m. at PC’s Restaurant and Lounge, and needed help walking because she was “stumbling” around. A man she was drinking with at the bar told deputies that Avina was “totaled and ripped” when they left. That same man said he drove Avina in her 2003 Chevy Tahoe to a nearby Allsup’s convenience store to buy more beer, but Avina got into the driver’s seat after he got out of the Tahoe and she took off.

Avina somehow ended up driving north on I-25, and witnesses who called 911 said she was swerving and driving 40 mph before things took a turn for the worse. “For reasons unknown at this time, Mrs. Avina turned around on the interstate near milepost 287 and she began traveling southbound in the northbound lanes of travel,” the sheriff’s report concluded.

Avina’s high level of drunkenness wasn’t unusual for a wrong-way driver. Dana Papst, who was driving his pick-up the wrong way just east of town when he struck a van and killed himself and five members of a Las Vegas, N.M., family in 2006, was found to have a BAC four times the presumed level of intoxication – .32 percent – after he’d been drinking on a flight into Albuquerque.

And Kylene Holmes, whose wrong-way driving on I-25 through town in 2010 resulted in a crash that killed her, and left her passenger and the driver of an out-of-service ambulance injured, had a BAC of .26 percent. Employees at the Cowgirl BBQ in downtown Santa Fe tried to talk her out of driving before she left the night spot the night of the crash.

The National Transportation Safety Board published a study on wrong-way driving in 2012 and found that 60 percent of wrong-way accidents are caused by drunk drivers. The study said states need to target drunk driving to cut down wrong-way driving.

Wrong-way drivers cause just 3 percent of all divided highway crashes, the study says, yet those crashes are 100 times more likely to be fatal. Another study by the Arizona Department of Transportation published in November 2015 said there’s an average of 270 deaths per year nationally due to wrong-way driving.

“New countermeasures to alcohol-impaired driving, as well as a renewed emphasis at the federal, state and local level, are needed,” the NTSB report concludes. It recommends states adopt ignition interlock laws to cut down on drunk driving. New Mexico requires anyone convicted of a DWI to install an ignition interlock in their car and first-time offenders must keep them installed for a year.

According to statistics compiled by the DOT and the UNM Geospatial and Population Studies Traffic Research Unit, there have been 143 alcohol-involved driving fatalities in New Mexico from January through November this year, compared to 115 in the same span last year.

Seventeen people died in car accidents through November this year in Santa Fe County and seven of the crashes involved alcohol.

New ideas

While the country at large is brainstorming ways to stop wrong-way driving, Florida and Rhode Island in 2015 started using existing infrastructure to install systems that aim to cut down on wrong-way collisions.

Both states installed red lights on their “Wrong Way” signs that flash at an errant driver and overhead electronic billboards tell right-way drivers that someone is going the wrong direction on the highway.

Transportation officials and law enforcement are alerted, as well. WFTS-TV in Tampa Bay reported that the Florida Department of Transportation used overhead electronic billboards to send out 17 wrong-way driver alerts in the Tampa Bay area in April.

The DOT’s Hatch said he would like to utilize a system that uses the electronic billboards, but that they are now located mostly only in metro areas. “I think ultimately we’d like to implement a system like that,” he said. “I don’t have a specific plan for that yet, but it’s something we’re looking at.”

Hatch said putting flashing red lights on “Wrong Way” signs is also something the department might look into, but he questioned their effectiveness and said impaired drivers look more at the roadway than at signs.

State Police Chief Pete Kassetas said that flashing lights often don’t faze a drunk driver.

“Technology is great and we need to embrace it, but I wonder if the flashing red lights would even be seen by a drunk driver,” Kassetas said. “Police cars across the country are plowed into all the time by folks that are intoxicated, and they’re just drawn like a moth to the light with those lights and they drive right into our cars.”

Even if the New Mexico DOT wanted to implement some of this technology, it may not have the money to do it as the state is facing a $69 million deficit for the fiscal year that ends June 2017.

“What gets really challenging is when we’re talking about exotic, high-tech solutions that haven’t been invented,” Hatch said. “Do we have a lot of (research and development) money to do that? We don’t. Most states don’t.”

Changes at Eldorado exit

The September tragedy spurred Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales to send a letter to state Department of Transportation Secretary Tom Church asking for a safety assessment on the stretch of I-25 between Eldorado and south through the city limits that would include discussing “technology to alert drivers when a vehicle is moving in the wrong direction, improved pavement markings and illuminated or flashing signage, entry/exit ramp design, and more.”

Church replied to Gonzales Oct. 12 and said the assessment “did not reveal any deficiencies in the design of the (Eldorado) interchange,” where I-25 meets U.S. 285.

Arrows in the I-25 off-ramp to U. S. 285 at Eldorado are another new warning to drivers heading up the ramp towards the interstate that they're going the wrong way. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Arrows in the I-25 off-ramp to U. S. 285 at Eldorado are another new warning to drivers heading up the ramp towards the interstate that they’re going the wrong way. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

But DOT has since installed additional “Do Not Enter” and “Wrong Way” signs – they almost appear as a forest of warnings on the interstate ramps at Eldorado, with increased sign sizes and reflectivity – as well as red buttons in the pavement that reflect back at anyone entering I-25 the wrong way.

Spike strips that would deflate a wrong-way driver’s tires on a ramp before they got onto the interstate – an idea that’s been debated, at least among worried motorists, after wrong-way fatalities over the years – don’t appear to be a simple and cheap solution, at least according to state officials.

“While the spike strips sound really cool and really effective, it’s not as effective and it probably would make most situations worse,” Hatch said. “If you have a drunk driver who has gone the wrong way on the road, and it’s usually in the middle of the night or early in the morning – it’s dark outside – they hit four spike strips, so now they have flat tires.

“But at some point, now you have a drunk driver in a disabled car going the wrong way, and now it’s parked, and maybe they’re getting out of the car.”

Kassetas said spike strips aren’t the best idea because sometimes law enforcement may need to drive the wrong direction up an entrance ramp on purpose, but he did like the idea of using electronic billboards to warn others of a wrong-way driver and gave some thoughts on what he thinks could help in the future.

“I would hope one day that we could have cameras that we could follow these cars on the interstate and help us better pinpoint where they’re at and warn other drivers,” he said. “If there was a situation where we would identify a wrong-way driver, I could see that, in the future, we would have maybe automatic gates that close off the interstate so people don’t add to the problem, especially in rural New Mexico.”

According to DOT statistics, there were 207 traffic fatalities in rural areas between January and November this year, while 162 were in urban areas.

But even with new technology, evidence indicates that keeping drunks off the road is key to avoiding what happened to Gress and Avina. Hatch categorized fighting DWI as an effort “we all have to contribute to.”

Kassetas says there’s no magical solution.

“I don’t have anything in my bag of tricks to say to stop this from happening,” he said. “What I can tell you is that it’s a simple message: Don’t drink and drive, and pay attention to your surroundings, then that gives you a better fighting chance of operating a vehicle in a safe manner. It’s as simple as that for me.”