Driving the Highway 120 Bypass is a thrill a minute.
First, it opened in the 1980s as Manteca’s answer to Blood Alley. People taking chances passing on the original two-lane expressway with the occasional passing lane quickly racked up a body count that generated a death on average once every six weeks with the statistical frequency of serious injuries being much shorter.
Retired firefighters and ambulance medical technicians have their own horror stories. They are gut-wrenching such as the woman who was pinned against her steering wheel and carried on a coherent, calm conversation with rescuers as they labored for nearly an hour to extract her. Then, once the pressure was off her body, she died.
Then it was the Barrier Era. Caltrans placed a concrete barrier much like you see in the center divider between Manteca and Ripon on Highway 99 down the center line. Driving it was an experience. Motorists often complained of a claustrophobic feeling that made them feel anxious driving. It was especially true when crossing bridges or elevated sections that had concrete barriers directly to the left of the drivers’ side and directly to the right of the passengers’ side.
The feeling was even more intense at night. You felt as if you had just boarded a car at Space Mountain in Disneyland and were being shot into space thanks to the speed that the reflectors atop the cement barrier passed your eyes. It was a very distracting and apprehensive experience.
The pace of the accidents didn’t slow down much although fatalities did. Bizarre accidents happened still especially where two lanes funneled down to one and inattentive and risk taking drivers weren’t watching traffic.
Typical was a Memorial Day mishap about 22 years ago when a trucker driving a fully loaded auto transport was following too closely and not paying enough attention when a sudden slowdown in traffic up ahead forced him to hit the brakes suddenly. He kept the truck from slamming against the concrete divider and the cars in the lane next to him but his stopping was so quick that one of the cars on top broke loose and rolled over the front, landing on top of a vehicle in front of him and crushing the roof flatter than a pancake.
Now we are in the Super Well Designed Era and the carnage continues despite wide, up-to-date freeway travel lanes with ample shoulders, an extremely wide center divider area and arguably the best three designed interchanges on and off ramps in California.
The accidents aren’t happening predominately in the fog or at night. They’re taking place in the afternoons, mostly on days where visibility isn’t a factor.
The short history of the Highway 120 Bypass proves a point a Caltrans engineer made decades ago at a public meeting: There is no such thing as a dangerous road, just dangerous drivers.
California’s basic speed law is simple. One can legally drive only as fast as the conditions safely allow. That means traveling 70 mph with just a half a car length between drivers isn’t safe. Zipping in between traffic flowing at 65 mph and then abruptly cutting over at the last minute to exit towards Modesto or Stockton onto Highway 99 isn’t safe nor is barreling 50 mph down the Bypass in zero visibility when Manteca is socked in by fog.
Anyone who has lived in Manteca for any length of time and has accessed the Highway 120 Bypass have their own horror stories of near misses. They can recall making bad judgment calls that fortunately did not result in an accident.
Things will only get worse as more and more people move to Modesto, Ripon, Escalon and beyond as well as Manteca and continue to increase the traffic count on the Highway 120 Bypass. It makes no sense, actually, for the most part as you can’t design a much safer four-lane freeway. But engineers can’t eliminate human error and bad judgment. That is why people slam into the back of each other, not because of the road.
In a way, it is unfortunate we call them “accidents” since that carries the connotation that they were unavoidable incidents. Except in rare cases of mechanical failure not caused by neglected maintenance which is irresponsible and definitely not accidental, there are no true accidents. Someone was driving too fast or reckless for the conditions. Sure, we can blame the fog, the heavy traffic, rain, darkness or whatever we want as contributing factors, but when push comes to shove it is driver error to blame.
And that boils down to two things — either we’re in too big of a hurry or we’re not paying attention when we’re behind the wheel of a weapon that kills more people than all criminals do in a year. It’s time we stopped blaming “conditions” and started zeroing in on the real culprits — you and me. We all need to take driving more seriously. The history of the Highway 120 Bypass proves that.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at email@example.com or 209.249.3519.