Pinellas Point Dr S at southbound Interstate 275: Blind visibility

We’re right into 2013 already and I hope everyone had a safe and happy New Years.  Whether you stepped out on the town to ring in the New Year or decided to stay at home and watch the ball drop on Times Square in New York City, I’m sure you had a great New Years.

As we were closing out 2012, an unfortunate head on accident happened on southbound Interstate 275 just north of the Pinellas Point Drive S exit (Exit 16).  According to this article in the St. Petersburg Times by staff writer Laura Morel, a Pontiac driven by Sandra Weems was headed northbound in the southbound lanes of Interstate 275 collided with a van headed south.  The driver and passengers of the van were taken to Bayfront Medical Center where two had minor injuries while two had serious injuries.  Unfortunately, Sandra Weems was pronounced dead at the scene.

Here is a comment I left for the St. Petersburg Times regarding what happened that I would like to share with you:

How could Sandra Weems drive the wrong way northbound in the southbound lanes of Interstate 275? From reading this article, Sandra probably entered Interstate 275 at Pinellas Point Drive South (Exit 16) onto the southbound exit ramp.

I recently took a ride out to Pinellas Point Dr S on Interstate 275 and I found two things:

1. The ramp is protected by only two “Do Not Enter” signs on either side. According to the federal Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) two “Wrong Way” signs on either side of the ramp facing traffic going in the wrong direction are supposed to be installed midway between the exit and the intersecting street.  (According to the recent edition of the MUTCD, those “Wrong Way” signs are considered optional, but I think these should be mandatory (see Section 2B.41 and Figure 2B-18)). 

2. The ramp dips down from Interstate 275 level to ground street level due to the way it is designed. When this segment of Interstate 275 opened in 1987 the interchange at Pinellas Point Dr S used to have traffic signals but these were removed due to low traffic counts.

Perhaps the Florida DOT should have installed – midway on the exit ramp – a red blinking signal plus an alarm bell to warn motorists going the wrong way along with a fixed Wrong Way sign.
The way the off ramp to Pinellas Point Dr S from southbound Interstate 275 was designed, you can’t see what is ahead of you until you are practically on top of the off ramp headed downward to street level.  Yes there are stop ahead signs once you are on the ramp and stop signs once you are right at Pinellas Point Dr S, but it’s a matter of sight distance.
If someone enters the southbound exit ramp to Pinellas Point Dr S from Interstate 275 going the wrong way, practically no one exiting would see it until it’s practically too late.  This would be akin to the ramp onto eastbound Interstate 375 from southbound Interstate 275 (remember when a tanker truck went over the guardrail and ended up in a maintenance yard below?), only the Interstate 375 ramp is a sharp curve to the left compared to the limited sight distance from Pinellas Point Dr S.
The solution that the Florida DOT should consider is a red blinking signal and audible alarm mounted on top of a wrong way sign located midway on the ramp between the point of exit and the intersecting street.  A sensor buried in the pavement would detect a vehicle going the wrong direction setting off the red blinking signal and alarm.  There is an installation like what I described on northbound Interstate 75 at the Webster exit (Exit 309) south of Bushnell; it is installed on the northbound off ramp due to the ramp’s circular design.
In fact, there used to be a similar wrong way alarm setup on Interstate 275 at the Tampa Airport exit (Exit 39) when there was a ramp to Cypress Street that was built in the mid-1970’s as part of the direct access ramp from St. Petersburg right to Tampa Airport.  Unfortunately, access to Cypress Street was removed when the interchanges in the airport vicinity were revamped a few years ago.  It worked on the same principle:  If a vehicle were to go the wrong way southbound onto the northbound Interstate 275 lanes a sensor buried in the pavement would set off a blinking red signal and alarm to warn traffic.
So, my suggestion to reduce the potential of accidents from wrong way entry onto Interstate 275 from Pinellas Point Dr S, especially the southbound off ramp would be as follows:
1.  Install wrong way signage along with blinking red signal and audible alarm, all facing traffic going the wrong way.  There would also be a blinking red signal facing traffic exiting the highway to let motorists know of the presence of a wrong way motorist on the ramp.
2.  Put back the traffic signals that were originally installed when the Pinellas Point Dr S interchange at Interstate 275 (Exit 16) opened in 1987.  However, there are certain conditions – called warrants according to the MUTCD – that have to be met before a traffic signal can be installed.  With the low vehicle counts that exist, it is highly unlikely that the traffic signals would be reinstalled.

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