More wrong-way sensors coming to I-275. Did one linked to fatal crash work?

The state is investigating a sensor at Busch Boulevard, where police believe a wrong-way driver may have entered and crashed into an officer.
Wrong-way signs at interchanges along Interstate 275 in Tampa are among the simplest tools used by the state Department of Transportation to keep motorists in the right travel lanes.
Wrong-way signs at interchanges along Interstate 275 in Tampa are among the simplest tools used by the state Department of Transportation to keep motorists in the right travel lanes. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published March 9, 2021|Updated March 9, 2021

TAMPA — The death of a Tampa police officer in a wrong-way driving crash Tuesday comes just weeks after state transportation officials vowed at a meeting in Tampa to expand the installation of sensors to help head off the problem.

But police said the wrong-way driver blamed in the death of Officer Jesse Madsen may have entered Interstate 275 at Busch Boulevard — an interchange that already has a sensor. State transportation officials were investigating whether the device was working at the time.

Related: ‘Highly decorated’ Tampa police officer killed in wrong-way crash on I-275

Year after year, transportation studies rank the Tampa Bay region among the worst in the state for wrong-way traffic deaths. There were seven wrong-way driving crashes in Hillsborough County last year and 41 arrests, the state Department of Transportation said. Only one Pinellas County crash was caused by a wrong-way driver in 2020, state records show.

At a December meeting with the Metropolitan Planning Organization, regional transportation Secretary David Gywnn said the state is rolling out new “wrong-way detection” sensors at some of Tampa’s busiest interchanges. The meeting came on the heels of a Brandon woman’s death Nov. 29 when she drove the wrong way onto I-275 at Dale Mabry Highway.

The woman “crashed almost immediately upon getting to the mainline,” Gwynn told the organization’s board.

Dale Mabry was not scheduled to get one of the sensors in the next phase of installation but Gwynn, under questioning from organization board member and Hillsborough County commissioner Pat Kemp, agreed to add it. Nine other interchanges along I-275, I-4 and I-75 also are scheduled to be outfitted with the new sensors by this summer.

Eventually, every interstate interchange is expected to have them, transportation officials said.

“We don’t know that it will necessarily prevent a crash,” Gwynn said in December. “But we are hoping that, in the future, what we will be able to do is to detect a person coming in the wrong way very early and then get message boards out and so forth to warn people, ‘Hey. There’s a wrong-way driver, lookout and hopefully, they will take additional care.’”

At a news conference Tuesday, Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan said investigators believe the wrong-way driver who hit Madsen entered the southbound lanes of I-275 at the Busch Boulevard exit ramp. State records show the sensor there was operating at the time but that it had received a “false read” around 8 p.m. Monday — just hours before the deadly crash. The agency is investigating.

When the sensors detect a wrong-way driver, they trigger an alarm at the Transportation Department’s Traffic Management Center, monitored 24 hours a day by Florida Highway Patrol staff. Cameras installed alongside the sensors help public safety officials track a driver’s location in real-time until law enforcement can intervene.

The sensors also set off flashing lights along the ramp and send a warning message to other drivers on overhead message boards along the interstates.

Related: Tampa Bay has history of deadly wrong-way crashes

More than 20 exits in the Tampa Bay area already have been outfitted with sensors. Some 150 also have flashing “wrong way” signs, reflective arrows and interstate shields painted on the roadway to help head off wrong-way driving.

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Reversible express lanes like those on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway have a series of iron gates blocking entrances when they’re not in use, as well as “Do Not Enter” signs and flashing yellow lights.

The state plans to begin installing the second batch of sensors in April, said regional spokeswoman Kris Carson.

“From what we’ve seen, they do seem to be effective,” Carson said. “Drivers see the flashing lights and most do self-correct.”