Preventing tragedy on the tollway

September 11, 2009 8:55:24 PM PDT
On the eve of a toll road increase on many of Harris County's toll roads, we're getting a look at some technology on the Westpark Tollway law enforcement calls priceless. Some 40,000 vehicles drive the Westpark Tollway every day. You see the exit signs and the toll tag readers, but you've probably never noticed the 14 sensors that likely have saved lives.

"It's an invaluable tool to us," said Calvin Harvey with the Harris County Toll Road Authority.

We were there in February of 2007, when the Harris County Toll Road Authority was testing wrong-way detection systems. There had been two accidents with a total of four fatalities caused by wrong-way drivers. Now almost a year after a system has been installed, there haven't been any.

"We have stopped eight different people and hopefully it's prevented loss of life," said Harvey.

It's not that the Westpark gets more wrong way drivers. Authorities say it happens all across the toll road system. It's just that it's all electronic, meaning no toll collectors to stop them. And that's where the sensors come into play.

"We needed an extra pair of eyes out there," said Harvey.

The Toll Road Authority gave us a demonstration of it's $500,000 system. If a vehicle enters the tollway going the wrong way, it sends an alert back to the dispatch center.

An electronic map flashes the warning and zooms in on the direction the vehicle is travelling. After a dispatcher confirms the danger using multiple cameras, he or she sends out officers to stop it.

It's innovative technology that has gotten the Toll Road Authority noticed internationally. Officials will pick up an International Excellence Award on Monday.

"We're not saying we'll prevent wrong way drivers," said Harvey. "We're doing our best that we can to detect them."

The half-million dollar wrong-way detection has not only been noticed internationally, but just up the road in Dallas, as well. After several recent deaths on Dallas toll roads, the North Texas Tollway Authority is studying the system here to see if it will work on the toll roads there.

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