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Ignoring signs: The body count continues on the Kern River & eastbound 120 Bypass
Kern River Canyon
The sign at the entrance to the Kern River canyon along Highway 178 was updated in May to show 298 people have drowned in the stretch of the river east of Bakersfield since 1968.

Outside of Bakersfield once you pass a Del Webb community and take Highway 178 across rolling hillsides of orange groves you will come across two signs — one in English and the other in Spanish — at the entrance to the Kern River canyon.

The Kern County installed signs that are updated annually are rather jarring given the message: “Kern River: 298 lives lost since 1968”.

The river is deceiving. It isn’t the San Joaquin or the Stanislaus as it is fairly shallow in places. But the current runs strong, the water can be icy, and the dangers below the surface well hidden. Toss in the fact there are literally dozens of places between the canyon entrance and Lake Isabella where you can pull off the highway and walk a few feet and you’re at the water’s edge, the river is like the proverbial siren song.

I pass through the canyon every year to cross Walker Pass on my way to Death Valley.

More than once I have wondered if it would make sense for similar signs to be posted along the eastbound lanes of the 120 Bypass once you pass Airport Way listing deaths, injuries, and over all accidents since 1980.

Caltrans obviously would not post such a sign given it would be interpreted by more than a few litigation lawyers as an admission of complicity in the 120 Bypass deaths. Nothing can be further from the truth given there really is no such thing as an unsafe road unless a flood, earthquake or landslide has taken it out. The basic California speed law as well as vehicle code rules for operating a motor vehicle are pretty clear. The speed limit posted can’t be exceeded but at the same time the legal speed limit is whatever speed posted or below that it is safe to drive at given conditions that include traffic.

If some community based group trying to save lives put an accident tally sign up on property along the freeway they may not have a liability issue but I doubt it would do any good.

Despite clear warnings in both Spanish and English that the Kern River is a treacherous place people still push their luck and pay with their lives.

The only difference between the Kern River and the eastbound 120 Bypass is other people get killed because of stupid decisions made by drivers because they couldn’t follow rules, weren’t paying attention or were impatient.

The surprising thing about the Kern River fatalities is the people who should know better lead the body count.

A Bakersfield TV station since 2000 has tracked the deaths on the Kern River tallying them by locals and out of the area.

Out-of-the-area river users who aren’t familiar with the Kern’s treacherous reputation paid no need to the sign and hit the water without life jackets and ended up paying the price 39 times. That body count was topped by locals with 52 drownings.

Caltrans did not design an unsafe freeway. It may be congested, but it is not unsafe. What makes it unsafe are some of the drivers.

If you live in Manteca or any of the nearby communities you should know the pitfalls. Still you will see more than a few vehicles with area dealer license plate holders that cut people off at the last moment in heavy traffic to head toward Modesto to trigger the slinky effect in the outside lane that every 36 hours or so can lead to a collision.

Caltrans in recent years has posted large signs on overpasses at Airport Way, Union Road, and Main Street warning of the upcoming Highway 99 split and what lane you need to be in to head toward Modesto three, two and one miles in advance. They have also beefed up their electronic message board system that warns of slow or stopped traffic ahead.

Now they are adding signs warning drivers to “Watch for Stopped Vehicle” and to “Stay in Lane” along with more robust striping including a double white line east of Main Street.

Hopefully this will help reduce the carnage a bit while Caltrans moves forward with its effort to unclog the congestion and improve traffic movements at and around the Highway 99/120 Bypass interchange. The first phase of a three-part $131.5 million solution that by itself will address a large chunk of the eastbound 120 Bypass safety issues is targeted to be in place by late 2023.

It will work because it reduces the opportunity for idiots to keep pushing their luck while gambling with their lives and the lives of others. Much like the locals and out-of-area visitors that think it is OK to venture in or onto the Kern River while ignoring basic safety measures such as wearing a life jacket, people drive down freeways and highways ignoring basic safety rules that have been codified as laws for the motoring public.

A less deadly example was last Sunday on the westbound off ramp of the 120 Bypass at Airport Way. The traffic was backed up almost to the freeway. After sitting in line for five minutes during which time traffic would inch forward, a pickup truck starts coming up the right side of cars traveling partially on the shoulder and partially on the dirt.

I admit I had to resist the temptation to pull out of line to the right to block his progress given I was near a drop off that would have impeded his progress.

Yes it was a pain to wait in line but that was also the case for people in more than 40 other cars. Imagine the chaos if every driver decided to freelance it and do illegal tricks that carry hefty fines if they are caught such as driving through a gas station or parking lot of a corner business to make a right hand turn because traffic is backed up at a signal or a stop sign.

With a little luck at least some more of us will see the additional warnings along the 120 Bypass to cut the crap and/or to drive more defensively.

As for out-of-area drivers one hopes the “Stay in Lane” and “Watch for Stopped Vehicle” signs along with the unusual lengthy solid double white lines between the outside and inside lanes will make it clear that this is not a section of freeway to employ self-centered driving practices.

For those who are local keep two things in mind. First one in six of the 31,000 plus vehicles that head eastbound on the 120 Bypass past Main Street on a typical day are trucks. Not only do they not stop on a dime but they are rarely the cause of accidents on the 120 Bypass although they kill and injure their share of people. Caltrans likely will never post a sign warning to give trucks space as we are all required to do under the law. So keep in mind you are cutting off a truck that may have to hit the brakes suddenly because of slowing traffic ahead even if there is space for three to four cars in front of them.

The same is true for those who tailgate trucks that give into the urge I almost did on the Airport Way off ramp to close the distance so some self-centered twerp doesn’t cut into the line at the last minute instead of waiting patiently like everyone else.

The other point is this: Based on traffic counts gleaned by Caltrans your chances of getting in an accident while driving eastbound on the 120 Bypass is six times higher than the average for other freeway segments in California.

That means you’d better drive the 120 Bypass six times more alert and cautious than you do other freeways.