A Caltrans engineer years ago told me that there really isn’t such a thing as an unsafe road.
The real problem is how people drive.
That comment was made after a church bus driver taking teens from Chico to a summer camp on the Foresthill Divide in 1973 went into a curve posted 35 mph on Highway 193 east of Lincoln in Placer County a good 15 mph above the speed limit and slammed into a roadside palm tree. Three teens were killed and a score injured.
The comment that was included in a story that I had written for the Lincoln News Messenger struck a few as callous as well as an attempt to pass the buck.
It was, however, an absolute correct observation.
If everyone drove according to what road design and conditions as well as traffic dictate the accident rate would tank faster than Jeb Bush’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
In the case of posted speed limits on curves, traffic engineers build in a safety cushion meaning if something is posted for 35 mph there’s a good chance you can take it at 40 mph and safely hold your lane.
There is little doubt if everyone drove like their lives depended on it the carnage that has turned the last eastbound two miles of the 120 Bypass into arguably the most-accident prone stretch of freeway in the 209 would dissipate.
People, however, are people. They get impatient. They get inattentive. They can drive like maniacs. They have bad judgment.
The 120 Bypass since its inception has been a real-world lab of human shortcomings.
The original design — alternating between two lanes in one direction and one in the other, back to a lane in each direction, and back again — was a way to get the bypass built with limited funding.
It wasn’t an unsafe design until real people started driving it. Within months of its opening it became a classic blood alley with head-on collisions on an almost weekly basis while bodies piled up. Drivers pushed their luck trying to get ahead of other vehicles before their direction of travel reverted to one lane.
Caltrans eventually took what critics called “suicide lanes” out of their repertoire of highway designs.
Within three years, concrete barriers were placed between the lanes of travel from Interstate 5 to a point near Highway 99 where it widened to two lanes for the split to head toward Stockton or Modesto.
Regional growth, increased movement of goods, and the lure of a wealth of Bay Area jobs that for the most part come with significantly higher pay than in the Northern San Joaquin Valley has added another deadly element to the human factor — a 120 Bypass-99 interchange that for extended parts of every day of the week is woefully inadaquate for the vehicle capacity it is handling.
There are those who don’t understand why the state hasn’t done something sooner. The reason is simple. California has a back log of major highway maintenance and safety needs that could easily burn through most of the cash Apple has on hand. There are 39.2 million Californians that travel thousands upon thousands of miles of highways and freeways. They all see pressing needs when it comes to roads.
It is why the persistent squeaky wheel with cash to catch the attention of the state are needed to draw attention to problems such as the 99-120 Bypass interchange. The interchange wasn’t programed or on the radar for the state to do anything about until elected leaders in Manteca and elsewhere started a steady and consistent lobbying effort. At least now it is on a potential list for work that could start in the summer of 2021.
To change that “could” into a “will” requires Manteca leaders and residents as well as others in the region to join forces as they did three times in the past: First to get the Bypass built in the 1970s. Despite legendary five-mile plus backups of stop and go traffic on old 120 (Yosmeite Avenue) through Manteca late Fridays and late Sundays from Bay Area residents traveling to and from the Sierra, the state didn’t even have it in their 20-year plan. The squeaky wheel with a broad-based lobbying blitz incorporating Bay Area residents that had to endure the back-ups as well did the trick.
The second was getting the barriers in place after the 120 Bypass was built. It would seem like an obvious move but Caltrans then — just like now — has pressure all around the state to address highway issues. Again squeaky voice with a united regional front work.
The third time was improving the 120 Bypass to full-fledge freeway compete with converting the Union Road overcrossing into an interchange in the 1990s. This time around the lobbying was backed up with a Measure K loan to the state to allow work to be done eight years ahead of schedule when funds were earmarked. The Measure K money was paid back eight years later.
It will take the same approach — Measure K money to augment state funds as well as a persistent regional full-court pressure — to get the 120 Bypass-99 interchange improved to eliminate the bottleneck and significantly reduce the carnage.