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Wrong-Way Crashes: Could a $300 Sign Stop Killer Wrecks?

Some states have found that lowering warning signs makes them more visible in headlights at night, and could get the attention of drunk drivers.
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Nearly 4,000 people have been killed in wrong-way traffic crashes nationwide over the last decade, but the state with the worst record has not made some simple safety changes that some experts say could save lives, an NBC News investigation has found.

Data from the Texas Department of Transportation, obtained by NBC-DFW, shows wrong-way accidents there jumped 13 percent in the last year, even as other states have managed to reduce the number of those collisions with an easy fix: lowering warning signs on highway ramps.

Head-on wrecks are particularly deadly: more than one in five result in a fatality.

Seven weeks ago, 18-year-old Sabrina Fernandez and her unborn baby were killed by a Dodge Intrepid barreling east on the westbound lanes of Interstate 30 in Fort Worth.

"I think my husband was the one who caught me before I actually hit the floor," her mother, Donna Davila, said of getting the news that her only child was dead. "I lost all feeling. I went to a million pieces."

The National Transportation Safety Board says at least 80 percent of wrong-way crashes involve alcohol: the driver blows past a warning sign and is suddenly in the middle of oncoming traffic.

That's what happened five years ago when a mother intoxicated by booze and pot killed eight people — including herself, her daughter and three nieces — on New York's Taconic Parkway.

Alcohol was also a factor in a 2011 crash on Interstate 20 in Arlington, Texas. A drunken driver sideswiped St. Clair Williams' car and then hit a semi.

"To this day, I still don't know how I got away," said Williams, who escaped without injury. "All the firemen and police were saying, 'You need to talk with us. You got angels around you.'"

The National Transportation Safety Board studied his accident as part of a nationwide report on wrong-way drivers.

Federal researchers and other experts concluded changes to freeway ramps — including better pavement markings, red reflectors and lower "Wrong Way" and "Do Not Enter" signs — could alert errant drivers they were about to make a potentially fatal mistake.

"We've seen this make a difference."

Lower-mounted signs — which cost just $200 to $300 per ramp — are more visible in a car’s headlights at night, when the majority of wrong-way crashes happen. Experts say drivers who have been drinking also tend to lower their heads.

California adopted lower signs in the 1970s after an experiment showed they eliminated the majority of wrong-way entries on problem ramps. Arizona, Georgia, Virginia, Ohio and Florida have followed suit.

In Texas, one toll road operator installed some for a test project and saw the number of mistaken entries cut by more than half on the Dallas North Tollway.

"We've seen this make a difference," said Eric Hemphill, director of maintenance for the North Texas Tollway Authority.

And yet the Texas DOT wants more research on the height of the signs — even though the feds approved three-foot warnings six years ago. The state believes two-foot signs might be safer if a driver hits one.

Texas is testing a wide range of wrong-way countermeasures in San Antonio, including flashing signs and radar, but other metropolitan areas in the state have only standard signs and pavement markings.

"The bottom line here is here is not enough conclusive data to suggest that wrong-way driving signs should be lowered," the agency said in a statement. "Safety is our top priority...We will always take new methods/changes into consideration."

Any changes will come too late for Sabrina Fernandez, whose parents don't understand Texas DOT's reluctance to more quickly adopt new safety recommendations.

"Why hasn't it hit here?" Davila asked. "If it's preventing some fatalities, why can't they put them here?"

Sabrina Fernandez
Sabrina Fernandez