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MDT installing new wrong-way sign systems

In the past several months, an alarming number of wrong-way motorists have been arrested for driving the wrong way on Interstate 90 near Three Forks.

The disturbing recent string of incidents turned fatal on January 4 when 22-year-old Laysa Grewell was killed following a head-on collision with a wrong-way driver at mile marker 278 just outside of Three Forks.

To reduce the incidents on the Interstate, the Montana Department of Transportation will soon be placing nine new wrong-way sign systems with radar detection between exit 274 in Three Forks and North 7th Avenue in Bozeman.

According to Traffic Design Engineer Tyrel Murfitt, MDT had a statewide project several years ago that included wrong-way signage and other compliant traffic control devices on interstate ramps to try and control wrong-way drivers. He said the new signs in the Three Forks area are Phase 2 of the project that was recently accelerated after the Bozeman and Missoula areas were identified as needing enhanced wrong-way driving features.

As the Montana Highway Safety Improvement Program was developing the Missoula area, Murfitt said the data showed this was a priority at the time. However, with the recent incidents, the maintenance department has stepped up to install these local wrong-way driving features sooner.

Murfitt described the main system of the new signage as “gated.”

“Which means there will be one sign on each side of the ramp, one on the right and one on the left. They will contain a wrong way sign that will be red, and it has a pair of 12-inch diameter LED lights mounted one above and one below the sign. And it has a radar detection system, so when it detects a car going in the wrong direction on the ramp, it will activate the lights in a flashing pattern. So, essentially, when the system activates, you will see four flashing lights, two on each side of the roadway,” said Murfitt. “Right now, in the Bozeman area, starting at the west Three Forks interchange at exit 274, we will install one pair. Each system consists of a pair. So were going to put one system on exit 274. The Manhattan Interchange will get a system for each exit ramp. The Belgrade/Amsterdam Road interchange will get a wrong-way system at the eastbound exit ramp over by the Town Pump, and we are going to put one on the westbound exit ramp coming in the other direction. Then, at N. 19th and N. 7th, we are going to get one for each exit ramp. So, we’re able to install nine different systems. That’s what we were able to acquire in a short time frame. And working with law enforcement, the MHP Captain, and Gallatin County and Broadwater County Sheriff, those were identified as the highest priority for now.”

According to Murfitt, the MDT currently has the signs and is working on foundations, final layout, and utility locations. With favorable weather conditions, active construction could occur within the next couple of weeks. He added that the signs will take several weeks to fully install because it will take time to cure the concrete and mount the systems.

Murfitt said that based on national research, an approximately 35 to 40% crash reduction is anticipated, but wrong-way driving can be very difficult to verify statistics, and local conditions will factor into the effectiveness of the systems.

“A lot of times, people will self-correct. The system activates, and they are able to self-correct and get turned around before they get on the interstate, he said.

Looking towards the future, Murfitt said that MDT is continuing to examine the area. He said they have other installations later but wanted to get these new systems in as soon as possible.

“My contacts with law enforcement have been very positive, and they are very happy with MDT’s response. Their biggest contribution was information, which was key to identifying where these systems should go on the first go-around,” Murfitt said.

RECENT INCIDENTS

Alexander Norbert LeDoux is facing eight charges in connection with the January 4 death of Grewell following a two-vehicle crash at Interstate 90 eastbound mile marker 278 near Three Forks.

Court documents state there is probable cause to charge LeDoux with Vehicular Homicide While Under the Influence, Fleeing and Eluding Causing the Death of Another, and six counts of Criminal Endangerment.

LeDoux allegedly drove his vehicle in the wrong direction on the Interstate for approximately 20 miles. According to the documents, following a blood test taken over 70 minutes after the fatal head-on collision, the toxicology report indicated LeDoux had a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) of .198, well over twice the legal limit of .08.

The documents also reveal that LeDoux drove 108 mph near Manhattan for most of the unsent 2-minute Snapchat video on his phone.

LeDoux is scheduled to make his initial appearance in Gallatin County District Court on March 28 at 9:30 a.m.

According to Montana Highway Patrol Sergeant Jay Nelson, the last thing any motoring public thinks about driving down the Interstate is somebody coming the wrong way, and that consequence can be deadly.

“We’ve tragically lost the life of one individual, and that potential is there each and every time one of these calls comes out,” said Nelson. “Every time we get these calls, we take them extremely serious trying to get troopers in a position to be able to intercept these vehicles. We also have several different things that hinder us with that. We would have to try and go into the wrong lane of travel to intercept or warn them, and that can be extremely dangerous for first responders.”

For Nelson, this is an issue he said is becoming far too regular.

“We’ve lost a life out of this, and each and every one of these calls that comes in makes you definitely concerned because it could end tragically again,” he said.

Within the past several months, wrong-way drivers have caused a great deal of concern for area residents traveling on Interstate 90.

The alarming recent string of wrong-way incidents started in late November when Andres Mejia-Ocampo was arrested and later charged with 37 counts of criminal endangerment, driving under the influence, and unauthorized use of a vehicle after driving the wrong way on Interstate 90 between Belgrade and Bozeman.

In early December, Jose Paul Yanez Almeida was arrested for allegedly driving westbound in the eastbound lanes of I-90 in Bozeman.

In early February, Amilcar Ajsivinac Queche was arrested for allegedly driving in the wrong direction near Manhattan and charged with four counts of criminal endangerment, driving without a valid license, proof of insurance, and unlawful possession of an open alcoholic beverage.

Mejia-Ocampo and Queche are currently incarcerated at the Gallatin County Jail in Bozeman, and each has an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Hold.

The Broadwater County Sheriff’s Office has also recently dealt with wrong-way drivers.

“We have arrested two driving under the influence drivers who attempted to get on the Interstate the wrong way. Luckily, we were at the right spot at the right time to catch them before anything tragic happened,” Sheriff Nick Rauser said.

According to Rauser, Broadwater County only has a short portion of Interstate 90, but when someone gets on the wrong way in another county, they usually get a call about the driver.

“I would say there has been an increase in these incidents in the last couple of years. I’m not sure why he is happening, however,” he said.

Rauser feels the new signage is a step in the right direction to remedy the issue.

He said that talking to the MDT, he is impressed they can get the ball rolling on the issue promptly.

“Usually, these things take years to get done. I don’t know if there is a right answer to the problem. I do think the new signage is a right step and hopefully that helps. If it doesn’t, at least we can say that we tried and that and it didn’t work and work towards a different plan,” Rauser said.

 
 
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