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Is Vermont doing enough to stop wrong-way drivers? - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Is Vermont doing enough to stop wrong-way drivers?

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BURLINGTON, Vt. -

Is Vermont doing enough to stop wrong-way drivers from putting you at risk?  We went looking for answers after that question was raised in court.

The state says wrong-way driving cases are not that common, but that hasn't been the case lately. We've had three in a six-month period just in Chittenden County.

In October of last year, five teenagers died when Steven Bourgoin crashed his car into theirs in Williston. The state says he did it on purpose.

Two months later, in December, a mother with a baby inside her car crashed head-on into another vehicle in Colchester. The trooper who responded said she was having a mental crisis when it happened.

And two months after that there was another wrong-way driver back in Williston. The 80-year-old driver said that she made an innocent mistake. Police stopped her before anyone got hurt.

"What's your emergency?" Fourteen times 911 operators said those words and heard from people calling to alert them about a wrong-way driver on Interstate 89. It was February 20 of this year, six months after five teens died in a head-on collision with another wrong-way driver.

"I think that all of us from now on will probably always think of the Bourgoin case whenever there's a case of a wrong-way driver," said Sarah George, Chittenden County state's attorney. 

It came out in court that 80-year-old Sandra Heath had just left the movies in Williston-- a rare nighttime ride for her back to Stowe-- when she claims a tailgater left her so nervous, she made a left onto Interstate 89 too soon. 

"She herself felt affected and heartbroken by what occurred in October. This is not that case," said Heath's lawyer.

Prosecutors tell us she drove nearly 3 miles in the wrong direction before a trooper coming the other way stopped her. She said she was grateful to see the trooper and told WCAX, "I could have killed somebody." The state charged her with grossly negligent operation.

"I've got photographs of that area that needs good signage," said Heath. 

Health came out of court saying what her attorney said in court, that there aren't enough signs near the exit ramp and that they are unreadable at night.

"There are a lot of clues if you're watching for them," said Amy Gamble. traffic operations engineer.

You might call Gamble the "sign guru" of Vermont. As a traffic operations engineer, her team is responsible for the 70,000 signs on 2,000-plus miles of state highways. 

"OK, we can see the 'DO NOT ENTERS,'" said Gamble. 

She showed us just how many signs Sandra Heath passed as she went up the highway ramp the wrong way.

"Every ramp has those 'WRONG WAY' signs and has the wrong way arrow. And you can see in this particular case we also have lane arrows," said Gamble.

Reporter Julie Kelley: Now, at night can you see those signs? 

Gamble: Yes, those are retro-reflective.

When Heath made the turn the wrong way, Gamble says she would have passed five signs that indicated that something was wrong. The first two right at the entrance saying "DO NOT ENTER." The second two, half way up the ramp saying "WRONG WAY." Those are the red signs. Then further up on the highway, there's an exit sign telling people to get off in Williston. Gamble says on the back side, there should be a sign that says "WRONG WAY." We went out to check and found out that sign isn't there. In fact, we noticed that a wrong-way warning wasn't on any of the exit signs in this area and called Gamble to find out why. She said she made a mistake. There aren't any signs indicating that you're going the wrong way once you get on the main part of the highway. 

So how do you know if you missed all of the indicators along the ramp? Gamble says the white line should always be on your right side.

"If you're driving the correct way down the road, the center line which is yellow, will always be to your left," said Gamble.

Gamble says that state might consider adding signs to the main part of the highway, but that wasn't even on their radar before I called to ask about it.

So what about Heath, is she driving now? She made a case to the judge to let her drive while her case moves through the courts. Prosecutors were against it. The judge says because she has a lot of doctor's appointments and no one to drive her, she can drive to Burlington on back roads and to Boston on the highway.

So would more signs make our highways safer? Gamble says that putting up more signs isn't something being discussed right now. She says signs only work as well as the drivers paying attention. So, there could be a ton of signs up, but people don't notice them.

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