The death of a Gorham man in a wrong-way crash on Interstate 295 Wednesday has refocused state transportation safety planners on exploring ways to improve exit ramps and their warning signs so people won’t get on the highway going the wrong way.

Daniel Cressey Sr. 79, was killed instantly in the violent collision when his northbound Saturn sedan hit a Lexus sport utility vehicle driven by Mary Warner, 58, of Holden. Warner is in satisfactory condition at Maine Medical Center. Both ankles and all the ribs on her left side were broken in the crash, but the high center of gravity and extensive airbags in her vehicle, plus a last second swerve to the right, probably saved her life, police said.

Ted Talbot, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transpor-tation, said safety planners had already been studying the issue in recent weeks, brainstorming ways to improve exit ramps.

“It’s not a reaction to one incident. It’s more of a study of maybe what to do and a broad look at any ideas on the table,” Talbot said.

Wrong way collisions on divided highways don’t happen often, but when they do, they are often fatal. When two cars going 65 miles per hour collide head-on, it is the equivalent of a car hitting a fixed object at 130 miles per hour, said Trooper John Kyle, who is investigating the crash.

Police do not know for sure how Cressey got headed north on the southbound lanes of the interstate. He had told family members he didn’t like driving at night. His family was unable to tell police why the Gorham man was in Freeport or where he was headed.

Police thought Cressey mistakenly took the southbound exit ramp at Mallett Drive, exit 22, which is directly alongside the southbound entrance ramp. There is one “do not enter” sign at the top of the ramp, and a “wrong way” sign partway down it.

The Mallett Drive ramps — like those at Bucknam Road farther south — are alongside each other and a simple misjudgment can conceivably put a driver on the wrong one.

But a witness came forward who said she saw Cressey’s car in the northbound lanes south of that exit. The woman told Kyle that she was driving north near Shaw’s supermarket, just past exit 20 and Desert Road, when she saw a car headed north in the southbound lanes.

The woman accelerated, fearing that any collision might spill over into her lanes, and she began flashing her high beams at oncoming cars on the other side of the median.

“She counted at least eight or nine that avoided him. Every time a car approached, she’s flashing her lights, trying to get their attention,” Kyle said. Each one missed hitting the northbound car. “Eventually, she saw one that did.”

Re-creating what happened

The configuration of exit 20 is different from exit 22. On Desert Road, southbound interstate traffic exits onto the north side of Desert Road. The southbound entrance ramp is on the opposite side of the road.

Cressey may have thought he was entering a cloverleaf, entering the southbound exit ramp as if it would curve and empty into the southbound lanes, like it does on Bucknam Road in Falmouth. He may also have been planning to turn onto Hunter Road, which is alongside the southbound exit ramp, but entered the ramp instead.

Kyle said he is still working to recreate Cressey’s route and destination.

Transportation officials say they have explored ways to improve warnings on exit ramps, but the challenge is that most wrong-way drivers are not typical motorists and have some other impairment.

“It’s not just that a driver simply took the wrong turn,” said Duane Brunell, of the Transportation Department’s safety office. “The average driver will quickly realize something is wrong here and quickly react to that…If a driver is still on the road two to three miles down the road…something more is at play.”

Most of the wrong-way drivers in Maine that police are aware of are people who were driving drunk or on drugs, elderly people, people who had mental illness and people on medication.

Cressey was taking several medications for health conditions, although its not clear whether that contributed to the crash. Kyle said he will try to recreate the last 24 hours of Cressey’s life. He said Cressey had a doctor’s appointment scheduled for earlier that day in Portland, but had not yet determined whether he was there.

Statistically, wrong-way crashes are not as significant a problem as other issues.

Between 2004 and 2008, Maine had 10 wrong-way fatalities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Not all were on interstates and some crashes had multiple victims. Maine was fifth lowest nationally. Texas had the most over the same period, with 730.

There has been an average of one fatal wrong-way crash each year in Maine over the past decade, but there were none in 2010 or 2011 according to a review of state police accident reports, Brunell said. Last year there were 136 fatal car crashes in the state.

“Just like frankly any sort of a fatal crash, we want to take a close look at it. Is there anything from an engineering point of view, location specific or system-wide, that’s in play?” Brunell said. No single location has more of a problem with wrong-way drivers than others, he said. Since 2003, only the town of York had two wrong-way crashes.

“It largely originates with driver behavior or conditions,” he said.

Maine transportation engineers are exploring “outside the box” improvements, Brunell said, though he would not be elaborate.

Signs regulated federally

The signs on exit ramps follow federal guidelines for interstates set out in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which is used by all state transportation departments.

Some states have sought to do more though.

A study by the Texas transportation department found that most wrong-way drivers are intoxicated and the elderly are over-represented compared to their proportion of the driving public. Most of the crashes happen at night, particularly in the hours after midnight.

The study suggested possible improvements. One was lower mounting of “wrong way” and “do not enter” signs, where they will be illuminated better by headlights and more likely seen by intoxicated drivers. Another was installation of reflective wrong-way arrows embedded in the pavement.

Others have suggested more elaborate improvements, like one-way spike strips, the kind used in some parking garages. However, they would leave a disabled car at the top of the exit ramp.

Another suggestion is flashing red lights activated by a car going the wrong way on a ramp.

Motion activated flashing lights might be effective, but are also cost-prohibitive, said Bill Eaton, head of Eaton Traffic Engineering in Topsham.

Eaton also said engineers design traffic warning devices to respond to typical driver behavior. Signs are placed at a consistent height because motorists learn to look at that height for information, he said.

Raised reflectors imbedded in the highway, with a red side facing away from traffic, are used in some southern states, but Eaton says they would be quickly damaged by snow plows.

Russ Rader, vice president with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said a more effective method of reducing wrong-way crashes would be to redouble efforts to prevent drunk-driving. He said progress made in that area during the 1980s and 1990s has stalled.


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