HOUSTON – The Harris County Toll Road Authority’s Wrong Way Detection System was not activated when a suspected drunk driver entered the Westpark Tollway Wednesday causing a fatal crash.
Deputies responded to the deadly crash on the toll road near Dunvale Wednesday morning. Jaelyn Chapman, a 19-year-old singer Houston R&B singer, was killed and three others were injured.
The suspect, Bobby James Brown, was speeding and intoxicated when deputies said his silver Infiniti traveled more than 3.5 miles on the Westpark Tollway in the wrong direction. Deputies believe Brown entered through the exit ramp at Post Oak and Richmond near the Galleria.
Asst. Chief Calvin Harvey with HCTRA’S Incident Management said the toll road’s wrong-way detection system sensors were deactivated at that site.
“I’m pretty confident if it were in place, it would have probably given us a warning,” said Harvey. “Now, whether or not it would have prevented the crash? That’s hard to say.”
Harvey said the overall detection system, which runs 13.2 miles at 18 sites, was working; however, the detection sensors at Post Oak were disabled 2.5 years ago due to 610 and I-59 construction.
“Once we get to a point where stuff is not going to get dug up or damaged again, they will reinstall the system at that location and reactivate that site,” he said. “In the meantime, nightly deputies check to make sure the construction barrels are in place and that the wrong way signage is in place.”
Less than two hours after KPRC 2′s interview with Harvey, crews were reactivating those very sensors. Harvey said he made a call because he thought enough time had passed without them.
In 2009, the HCTRA implemented the “Wrong Way Detection System” to make the Westpark Tollway safer by identifying wrong-way drivers that entered the system. When enabled, LED signs flash at wrong-way drivers, and tollway signs change to warn other drivers. Sensors in the road use radar technology to spot the car and alerts the toll road’s dispatch center, which in turn calls deputies to try to stop the wrong-way driver.
Harvey said the system has caught 104 wrong-way drivers since 2009, which has resulted in 62 DWI arrests.
He said in 2021, there have been two alcohol-related fatal crashes that resulted in three wrong-way deaths, including Chapman’s on Wednesday.
Dispatchers and deputies, unfortunately, didn’t get the call until it was too late. Harvey said it was another driver that spotted the suspect’s car going the wrong way and made a report. Chief Harvey said given the speed Brown was traveling and the short distance, there was not enough time to warn other drivers.
“In this particular crash, there was no time for us to activate the Dynamic Message Signs to say the vehicle traveling in the wrong direction,” he said.
Texas has the highest number of fatal wrong-way crashes than any other state with 309 reported between 2015 and 2018, according to AAA.