The number of Americans killed each year in wrong-way crashes has increased more than 38 percent since 2013. These types of collisions are 50 times more likely to be deadly compared to all vehicle crashes. Now Arizona is investing in a possible high-tech solution that instantly alerts police and drivers.
States are finding that good signage and common sense aren't enough to always stop a wrong-way driver from getting on a freeway, reports CBS News correspondent Kris Van Cleave.
Arizona state trooper Stuart McGuffin said it's a "huge problem." He'll never forget the night he came face to face with a wrong-way driver – who fortunately stopped in time.
"I don't want him to go around me. I don't want to get in a wreck. I don't want to get hurt, but I really don't want that car getting around me and colliding with unknowing or unsuspecting traffic," McGuffin said.
Arizona is the first state testing thermal cameras to catch wrong-way drivers. The cameras are posted at off-ramps along a 15-mile stretch of Interstate 17 to immediately spot a wrong-way driver entering the freeway. It's part of a $4 million pilot project.
When triggered, an alarm sounds in the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) operations center. It brings up the camera and alerts police to the driver's location. Within seconds, electronic signs along the highway warn "wrong-way driver ahead, exit freeway."
"The faster we can react, the better off we are," said Dallas Hammit, ADOT's deputy director.
"So you know almost instantly that it's happened. How does that compare to waiting for a 911 call?" Van Cleave asked.
"In one case, we got an alert. We saw it on our camera and we waited almost five minutes before the 911 call," Hammit said.
Col. Frank Milstead, who oversees Arizona's highway patrol, said he gets a call for a wrong-way driver every shift, and they often have something in common.
"Sixty-five percent of the all those people that we stop and arrest for going the wrong way are impaired. It's not a highway problem. It's an impairment problem," Milstead said.
Mary Ann Mendoza's son, Mesa police Sgt. Brandon Mendoza, died four years ago when a drunk driver hit him head-on.
"It's hard as a mother to know that your child has gone before you. They haven't been able to fulfill all their dreams," Mendoza said.
She's now suing the state.
"Quit talkin' about doing something about it. Because there's still wrong-way drivers on the freeways and there's still Arizona citizens who are at risk who could be killed today," Mendoza said.
Arizona also took a page from San Antonio, which saw the rate of wrong-way drivers entering a highway drop by about a third after enlarging and lowering wrong-way driver signs and adding ones that flash red.
Research shows there is not an effective way to physically block a wrong-way driver from getting on a freeway.
"Right now we have not found a physical barrier that stops them. We've looked at spikes, we've looked at other things and they just aren't reliable," Hammit said.
Mendoza just hopes no other mother experiences her heartbreak. She tends to her son's memorial at the ballpark the city named after him.
"I just know what hard work he put into this and the plans he had for himself for the future, you know, they're gone," she said.
Other states are now coming to Arizona to see how this pilot program is working. The state is planning to expand it, adding these cameras to a new stretch of freeway set to open this year.