HOUSTON--When Martin Hernandez, 33, was arrested early Friday morning and charged with his second DWI, his wrong-way trip on the North Loop and the North Freeway highlighted a problem that state traffic planners are desperate to solve.
As Hernandez sped the wrong way in the southbound lanes of I-45 near Tidwell a Houston police officer swerved to avoid him and crashed into a cement barrier. The officer suffered only minor injuries. As many as four vehicles were involved in the chain reaction crash before police were able to stop the wrong-way driver.
Hernandez was the fifth wrong-way driver to cause accidents on Houston-area freeways in the last week and a half.
On June 27, a wrong-way driver on Spur 527 near downtown Houston slammed into another car. Only the wrong-way driver was seriously injured.
On June 29, deputies say Nicole Baukus, 23, drove the wrong way in the southbound lanes of the North Freeway near Hwy 242 in Montgomery County, crashing head-on into another car and killing the two people inside. Baukus suffered minor injuries and is charged with two counts of intoxication manslaughter.
Just a few days later on July 2nd, another suspected drunk driver identified as 42-year-old Edward Blackwell, drove north in the southbound lanes of I-45 killing one of his passengers and two people in another car near Woodlands Parkway.
Early Friday morning on Hwy 225 near Richey in Pasadena, a wrong-way driver in a pickup truck crashed into an 18-wheeler at 12:45 a.m.
And the midnight wreck on the North Freeway near Tidwell that injured the Houston police officer was wrong-way wreck number 5.
Studies by the Texas Department of Transportation show that most of these wrecks fit a pattern. Most wrong-way crashes happen between midnight and 6 a.m. The most deadly hour is between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. An estimated 50 to 75-percent of all wrong-way drivers are under the influence.
Saturday measures up as the most dangerous night. Between 2007 and 2011, there were 137 wrong way crashes on major highways in Harris County and 27 fatalities. Harris County is the unfortunate leader in wrong-way crashes in Texas. San Antonio runs a close second.
A TXDOT spokesperson says it plans to begin a new two-year study in September to look at high-tech and low tech solutions to cut down on the number of wrong-way crashes.
The Westpark Tollway is the only Houston-area highway equipped with sensors that can alert officers that a vehicle has entered an off-ramp the wrong direction. San Antonio has installed a larger network of similar warning devices.
But low tech solutions being tested by other states include lowering Wrong Way and Do Not Enter signs from their current 7-feet to just 2-feet, to put them in a better line of sight for both sober and inebriated drivers. But the 7-foot height is standard so that if hit by a car the sign will fly over the top of the vehicle. Some experts fear that lowering the signs to 2-feet makes them a windshield penetration hazard when a vehicle hits them.
TXDOT says spike strips, like those used in parking garages and parking lots, have generally been ruled out. A car with tires flattened by a spike strip, for example, might pose a traffic hazard if disabled in the middle of a high-speed off ramp.
A 2004 study conducted by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M suggested installing reflective wrong-way pavement arrows on left side exit ramps, lowering Do Not Enter and Wrong Way signs and implementation of wrong-way detection systems on exit ramps.