Technology being tested in South Florida to prevent wrong-way drivers

Infrastructure in place at 17 exits on Florida's Turnpike, Sawgrass Expressway

PEMBROKE PARK, Fla. – More than 100 people in Florida died in crashes involving a wrong-way driver last year, which is why the state is testing technology in South Florida to stop drivers from traveling in the opposite direction.

Several wrong-way crashes in recent months have claimed the lives of innocent people.

In December, one day before New Year's Eve, five people were killed on Interstate 95 at Miami Gardens Drive after Florida Highway Patrol troopers said Alexandra Lefler, 23, of California, was driving the wrong way in the far right express lane when she sideswiped one car and then hit another head-on, killing a family of four in that car and herself.

Authorities said the driver and small business owner, Miguel Gil, 47, and his mother, Gisela Egui Hernandez, 71, had just picked up his sister and brother-in-law from Miami International Airport after they had arrived from Connecticut.

Two weeks before that fatal crash, about eight miles south on Dec. 13, another wrong-way crash in the northbound lanes of I-95 killed a woman and injured two of her relatives. Carmen Rosa Criales, 22, died at the scene. Her brother, Bryan Criales, 21, remains at Jackson Memorial Hospital in critical condition with severe brain damage. Their mother, Elisa Diaz, 48, was just recently released from the hospital in a wheelchair.

The three of them were on their way to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, where Carmen Rosa Criales was scheduled to board a flight to New Jersey for her medical school orientation.

Her father, Noel Criales, was waiting at the New Jersey airport to pick her up, but she never made the flight. He has since uprooted his life in New Jersey to be by his son's hospital bedside.

"He (doesn't) know he (lost) his sister yet," Noel Criales said.

Troopers said Criales' family was struck head-on by Franklin Chavez, 24, who was driving south in the northbound lanes near the Southwest Eighth Street exit.

The latest wrong-way crash happened Feb. 22 on Florida's Turnpike at Griffin Road. Tzvi Ference, 26, of Miami Beach, was behind the wheel of the Honda Accent when it slammed into a tractor-trailer. Ference, who posted about killing himself in a similar manner days earlier, was killed. Nobody else was injured.

FHP troopers gave Local 10 News exclusive access to see the effectiveness of the pilot program's wrong-way crash prevention infrastructure. Troopers blocked off the Sample Road exit ramp from the Sawgrass Expressway and escorted a Local 10 crew onto the ramp -- the way in which many drivers get on in the wrong direction. It is one of 17 exits on Florida's Turnpike and the Sawgrass Expressway where the Florida Department of Transportation is testing the device.

Sensors set off flashing red lights on "wrong way" signs, and overhead billboards warn drivers of the oncoming danger. A camera instantly sends a picture of the wrong-way vehicle to troopers and FDOT dispatchers.

Since the equipment was installed in October 2014, 23 people have attempted to get on the wrong way at just those 17 exits being monitored. All but one driver turned around. The man who made it past the warning crashed into another car head-on and died.

The system is nowhere to be found on I-95 in South Florida. But one man is working hard to change that.

Gary Catronio has come up with plastic poles for exit ramps that would block a car from getting on the highway.

"Once the signs light, we're going to have the pods come up out of the ground," Catronio said as he demonstrated the device with a model. "There will be eight of these across the road that will block the roadway."

Catronio has dedicated the rest of his life to saving others because his daughter's life was cut short. Marisa Catronio, and her best friend, Kaitlyn Ferrante, both 21, were killed in a wrong-way crash in November 2013. They weren't far from home on the Sawgrass Expressway in Coral Springs when Kayla Mendoza, 20, caused the head-on crash. Mendoza posted "2 drunk 2 care" on Twitter just hours before the crash.

"If I told you I didn't walk around with a very heavy heart, I'd be lying to you," Gary Catronio said. "Every life I save saves someone from going through this tragedy."

The day after the crash, Marisa's Way Foundation came to life with the help of Catronio's family and friends. The group speaks to students at schools, runs a scholarship program and holds multiple annual fundraisers. This new infrastructure, though, is now their top priority.

Gary Catronio's other calling is what he calls divine intervention. Noel Criales agrees.

"My daughter planned (it) from the sky and said, 'We have somebody to get you some support, daddy,'" Noel Criales said.

Gary Catronio said they are like brothers.

"We're here for the support of him and his family and, moving forward, I think we heal each other," he said.

Gary Catronio said he's in constant communication with the FDOT about ways to install more devices along Florida's roadways. He's working now to place the device on a piece of land where it can be tested with vehicles.

Another suggested device to prevent wrong-way crashes is the installation of spike strips like those found in rental car lots. The strip of metal is meant to deflate a vehicle's tire when entering the lot from the wrong way.

Local 10 brought the suggestion to the state. Transportation officials referred Local 10 to a document from the Texas Department of Transportation.

The position paper, "Engineering Analysis of the Installation of Spike Strips and Other Destructive Devices in Freeway Exit Ramps," lists 10 reasons why placing permanent spike strips or other destructive devices at exit ramps to prevent wrong-way drivers would not work. Florida transportation officials said they are in agreement with those findings and will not look to install spike strips on exit ramps.