Driving eastbound on the 120 Bypass is akin to riding into the Valley of Death.
The odds of getting into an accident are high especially the closer you roll to the Highway 99 split.
If you drive the stretch of freeway on a routine basis and have a desire to live, you know right lane traffic can without notice go from 65 mph to a stop-and-go pattern reminiscent of a Slinky. That’s because most of the traffic tries to funnel into one lane to head south toward Modesto. Some call it Deadman’s Curve and for good reason. There have been eight deaths and more than 350 injuries on the 120 Bypass primarily between Union Road and Highway 99 heading eastbound over the past six years. That is on top of fender benders that are essentially an everyday occurrence. A snapshot of just one year — 2013 — shows more than 220 accidents occurred along the 6.2-mile 120 Bypass with the overwhelming majority between the midpoint between the Union Road and Main Street interchanges and the Highway 99 transition.
The design of the connecting ramp isn’t inherently dangerous. Nor is how the 120 Bypass splits. The problem is people who ignore conditions. Locals who do so are fools. Those not overly familiar with the stretch get ample warning in electronic signs controlled by Caltrans that tell of slowing or stalled traffic ahead.
It is tough to call what happens along the 120 Bypass an accident. Blame it on the real culprit: Drivers that travel too fast for conditions, follow too closely, are impatient, aren’t paying attention, are yakking away on a Bluetooth cell call, or who believe they have catlike reflexes.
Driving the left lane is no picnic either as you pass Main Street given impatient types that suddenly pull out from the right lane that’s doing a stop-and-go Samba line dance crawl in a bid to leap frog around traffic ahead of them. That isn’t the only danger to left lane motorists that can still at most times move along at 55 mph. Every once in while you will get behind some bozo who will travel as far as he can in the left lane — often past a mile or so or backed up traffic, and then suddenly slam on the brakes so they can merge at the last second in a gap that inevitably opens up for a car to two right before the right lane peels off.
You can ill afford to drive either direction on the 120 Bypass in mental cruise control. To not give it your undivided attention is to drive recklessly. The odds are just too high for something to go wrong.
Was the 120 Bypass always this dangerous? Yes.
After Manteca residents and leaders successfully petitioned the California Transportation Commission to end the traffic jams that often strung along for five miles heading to and from the Sierra on both ends of a weekend through downtown Manteca via Yosemite Avenue, a miffed Adrianna Gianturco rewarded the effort by creating Blood Alley.
Gianturco was Gov. Jerry Brown Version 1.0’s Caltrans director that he imported from Boston. To say she disliked freeways was an understatement. She actually argued Californians everywhere would be better served by bus service and not more highway building including deep in the rural San Joaquin Valley. When the CTC pushed the 120 Bypass to near the top of the Caltrans priority list, Gianturco rewarded the effort by putting in place a semi-freeway complete with interchanges but with travel lanes that switched from one to two lanes intermittently in each direction. Of course, there was no separation between east and west traffic despite the state having plenty of right-of-way to do so. The result was the 120 Bypass averaged a death a week for months until angry Manteca residents successfully petitioned Caltrans to place concrete barriers down the center lanes.
That didn’t stop the carnage. It just slowed it down.
Given the 120 Bypass’ pedigree of death and twisted metal, something needs to be done.
The ultimate solution is for motorists to pay attention, back off, drive no faster than conditions allow. The odds of that happening are about as great as President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner having a love fest for the next two years.
The best engineered solution is to add a second transition lane heading south toward Modesto allowing the left lane to go either north or south.
This won’t happen for a long, long time — if ever — given Caltrans would likely have to eliminate ramps at nearby Austin Road to make it work. That is a possibility if the Raymus Expressway is put in place between Austin Road and Jack Tone Road. But that will require shifting the Highway 99 freeway eastward due to the railroad tracks and carries a price tag in excess of $100 million.
Until then, people need a not-too-subtle reminder of the risk they are taking by not driving as conditions warrant on the 120 Bypass.
Manteca could borrow a page from a playbook used by those responding to Kern River drownings along a stretch of twisty Highway 178 east of Bakersfield.
At the point where the river and highway exit the canyon, a large sign is updated yearly. The latest reads “269 drownings since 1968” in the Kern River.
A similar sign noting accidents on the 120 Bypass that’s changed on an annual basis just might make more people realize driving the segment of freeway can be a life and death task and should be treated as such.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.