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. One involved a 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 extricate her. Then, once the pressure was off her body, she died.
Next 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 of the then two-lane 120 Bypass. Driving it was an experience. Motorists often complained of a claustrophobic feeling that made them more than anxious driving especially when crossing bridges or elevated sections with 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 were riding Space Mountain at Disneyland 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 still happened especially where two lanes funneled down to one when inattentive and risk-taking drivers weren’t watching traffic. It is why such lane configurations have been dubbed “suicide lanes” by wary drivers.
Typical was the Memorial Day mishap about 19 years ago when a trucker driving a fully loaded auto transport was following too closely and not paying enough attention when a 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 of his transport broke loose and rolled off the back, landing on top of a vehicle behind him and crushing the roof flatter than a pancake.
Now we are in the Super Well Designed Era. The carnage continues despite wide, up-to-date travel lanes with ample shoulders, an extremely wide center divider area and arguably the best three designed interchanges on and off ramps in California.
And the accidents aren’t happening predominantly 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 the lane that exits towards Modesto onto Highway 99 isn’t safe nor is barreling 50 mph down the Bypass in zero visibility.
Anyone who has lived in Manteca for any length of time and has driven the Highway 120 Bypass has horror stories of near misses.
Things will only get worse.
First, the southbound transition ramp going onto Highway 99 will no longer start a new lane that runs all the way to south of Turlock. Instead, it will revert back to a merge lane as it did before the freeway was widened to six lanes between Ripon and Manteca in 2001. That will happen soon when the current freeway widening between Stockton and Manteca is completed.
It also doesn’t help that as more and more people move to Modesto, Ripon, and Escalon and beyond the traffic count will continue to increase on the Highway 120 Bypass.
The amount of carnage and twisted metal makes no sense as you can’t design a much safer four-lane freeway. The advent of smartphones and the accompanying desire to text and manually dial numbers despite laws prohibiting such activities isn’t helping the situation.
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 each year than criminals.
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.