It is a horror story that never ends.
In heavy mid-day traffic eastbound on the 120 Bypass near the Main Street overcrossing drivers in the fast-lane wait for the last possible moment to cut into the right lane for the transition ramp to southbound Highway 99 to head toward Modesto.
That prompts vehicles to slow suddenly. A vehicle in the right-hand lane is unable to stop soon enough and slams into a car ahead of it which in turns slams into another vehicle.
The carnage on the deadliest stretch of freeway in the Northern San Joaquin Valley continued Thursday at around 12:30 p.m. as the all-too-familiar scenario played out. The result was fatal.
The California Highway Patrol said a two-axle Freightliner truck slammed into the rear end of a stopped Hyundai headed east just past the Main Street overcrossing. That shoved the compact into the back of another big rig fatally injuring the driver. Two other vehicles sustained damage while taking evasive action.
The eastbound 120 Bypass was closed for three hours while the investigation and clean-up was conducted. Thousands of cars and hundreds of trucks were dumped onto Manteca surface streets for more than six hours as the afternoon commute compounded the mess. Traffic moved to a crawl on Yosemite Avenue while other vehicles exited the freeway to the south flooding streets such as Woodward Avenue and rural roads that lead to Ripon in a bid to reach Highway 99 before the Stanislaus River bridge.
It is accidents like the one Thursday that prompted Caltrans to unveil a three-phase, $131.5 million solution to reduce the potential for collisions and ease traffic congestion. The work on the first phase that will address the eastbound 120 Bypass backup by doubling the transition lanes to two for traffic headed to southbound 99 and replacing the Austin Road overcrossing to widen Highway 99 to allow for more efficient operational movement for merging is targeted to start in the fall of 2021.
Caltrans — in a study prepared to justify the project — noted your odds of getting in a collision on the 120 Bypass as you near Highway 99 if you are trying to head south toward Ripon and Modesto is six times higher than the statewide average. High traffic volume during the afternoon commute that sees in excess of 2,000 vehicles an hour trying to go from the eastbound 120 Bypass to southbound Highway 99 creates a backup for at least a half mile for a number of hours. The state notes that motorists — impatient about the delay — will use the fast lane or inside lane to travel as far as they can to the split and then cutback into the much slower moving traffic in the right lane. That leads to rear-end collisions and an accident rate six times higher than the average for a California freeway. But as the region keeps growing and more traffic is funneled through the 120 Bypass/Highway 99 interchange such collisions are becoming more prevalent during non-commute hours such as what happened on Thursday.
Thursday’s accident brings the death toll on the 120 Bypass to 10 in the last 4 years and to more than 60 since the bypass of Old Highway 120 — Yosemite Avenue — was first opened to traffic when Manteca had 24,925 residents and was roughly the same population as Lathrop is today. The bypass was originally opened as two-lane expressway with occasional passing lanes in each direction. That led to 36 deaths in the first 30 months the 120 Bypass was open before concrete K-rail was installed the entire length of the bypass to separate the lanes. When the bypass was expanded to full freeway status in the mid-1990s accidents dropped off until growth led to increased congestion on the transition ramp.
It has gotten to the point that in 2018 there was an accident every 15 hours at the interchange and freeway approaches that required Manteca Fire Department units to respond.
The CHP noted Thursday fatal accident is an active investigation. Anyone with information is encouraged to contact the Stockton CHP at 209-938-4800.
To contact Dennis Wyatt, email email@example.com