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Yes, the 120 Bypass is dangerous, but it’s not road that makes it so

I’ll never forget the first fatality accident that I covered for the Manteca Bulletin. 

This was more than 15 years ago, when there were a lot less people living in the city, and traffic going eastbound on the Highway 120 Bypass had begun to slow as the Highway 99 split approached.

An empty truck that apparently wasn’t paying attention to the traffic in front of it failed to stop with traffic and actually ran completely over a small Isuzu pick-up, and used it as a roller skate to cut across both eastbound lanes, both westbound lanes, and jump the road onto the embankment near the Van Ryn almond hulling plant. 

And then the big rig exploded. 

For hours the Bypass was closed in both directions as news helicopters circled overhead and I stood on the blacktop of the empty roadway with reporters from every newspaper in a 50 mile radius – the Modesto Bee, Stockton Record, and the now defunct Tri Valley Herald all had reporters based in Manteca at the time – waiting for the press conference to begin letting us know the specifics of what happened. 

And the whole time all I could do is look at the burnt, mangled remains of what was a pickup truck smashed beneath a tractor trailer and try and put out of my mind that a person was still inside of that cluster of smoking, tangled metal – that a guy had just been minding his business one second, and was instantly dead the next. 

It’s a scene that still haunts me if I put too thought into it, especially as I used to travel that route frequently on my way home from work. 

My point in this is that while he had a fatality accident on the Bypass last week that was similar in circumstance, this is not a new issue. 

While the statistics for Highway 99 and the Highway 120 Bypass are enough to give most drivers pause when thinking about driving on them, I argue that the roads themselves are not inherently dangerous but the people who use them frequently create the conditions that leads to disaster. 

It’s no secret to anybody who has lived here for any length of time that the backup that caused the wreck that I saw – and the one that killed somebody last week – comes from drivers who try and pass slowed traffic and cut in at the last second, causing brakes to be hit and traffic to get worse as the chain reaction starts. 

And there are a lot of ways, I think, to combat this – from installing a Jersey barrier from half-a-mile east of the Main Street onramp all the way to the split for Highway 99, to installing a see-through barrier that is more forgiving to vehicles that splits traffic and prevents the last-minute cut overs. 

The easiest way to prevent these accidents, however, involves absolutely no intervention at all. 

People just need to slow down and be patient. 

I know that you laughed when your read that, because nobody is actually going to do it, but I honestly believe if people logically broke down how much time they would save by cutting off traffic with the level of danger involved with doing so, they’d realize the extra two or three minutes wouldn’t be worth it. 

There are ways to reinforce that as well.

This is a proposition that is a bit far-fetched, but by simply making the move to cut off traffic in that section of roadway illegal – there are “no passing zones” on highways all through California – and mounting cameras along the route to catch offenders, it wouldn’t be too long before the practice ground to a screeching halt. Anybody who is caught and fined for breaking the law could pay into a dedicated fund that will go towards overhauling the interchange and paying for the maintenance of the cameras and the installation of necessary signage. 

It’s gotten to the point now that I don’t even drive on the Bypass anymore unless I’m headed west – the traffic is unpredictable, the people are all in a hurry, and it’s not worth the aggravation or the risk to be one of the unlucky ones who happens to have somebody behind them that is texting or not otherwise paying attention.

From roughly 2 p.m. on most days of the week, traffic at the Highway 120 Bypass interchange with Highway 99 South is at a standstill, and that traffic continues south on Highway 99 all the way down to the Stanislaus County line. If headed to Modesto, it’s easier to just take State Route 120 and cut through the country over to McHenry Avenue – taking Murphy Road to River Road – where you are less likely to encounter traffic and be moving the entire time. 

There are a lot of people that have moved into this city in the last decade, and even more are coming as rooftops begin to dot the horizon looking south from the Highway 120 Bypass – which is easy to do, because you’re probably not moving faster than five miles per hour – which will only add to the traffic issues that we’re having now. For these new residents, it’s important to realize that this isn’t a problem that has just sprung up overnight, and it isn’t something that is going to go away overnight. 

Fortunately, California voters were wise enough to reject the gas tax repeal that was on ballot last year, because that revenue will go directly towards improving the interchange that is causing the problem. Had that been overturned, this would be an issue that we would be facing for the foreseeable future.

So, yes, the Highway 120 Bypass is dangerous, but not because there is anything wrong with the roadway itself. It is the people who drive it that make it dangerous, and even if the interchange is overhauled, if people continue to behave like they’re more important than everybody else on the road, then people will continue to die. 

It’s really that simple. 

To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.