Three people were killed in another wrong-way crash in the Sacramento region when a pickup driver slammed into a car on Interstate 80 near Madison Avenue early Tuesday morning.
California Highway Patrol Officer Chad Hertzell said a male driver in a Ford F-150 pickup traveling eastbound in the fast lane of westbound I-80 at Madison Avenue struck a Lexus with two men inside. The crash occurred at about 12:30 a.m.
The driver of the pickup and the two men in the car died at the scene. The two victims were identified as Zahid Arshad, 25, of South San Francisco, the driver of the Lexus. The passenger was Nicholas Sharma, 24, of Hayward. The wrong-way driver has not been identified.
It was the fourth wrong-way freeway crash locally in recent months. All of them occurred late at night or early in the morning. In total, the four crashes have left 14 dead. State highway safety officials said they are concerned by the number, and are looking into the causes to determine if there is a trend.
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“It may be a cluster rather than trend,” state Office of Traffic Safety spokesman Chris Cochran said. “But we have to wait and see.”
CHP units in the general vicinity Tuesday were alerted to the wrong-way driver who may have entered the freeway at Watt Avenue and started responding, but could not head off a collision. An arriving officer acted quickly to try to save the pickup driver who appeared to be alive.
The engine compartment was on fire, but flames had not yet engulfed the cab of the pickup, said Hertzell.
“He busted out the window and the driver looked over at the officer,” said Hertzell. “The officer reached in and tried pulling on the man. But he was stuck. Before he could figure how to yank him out, the whole inside the cab caught on fire. The officer had to pull out. The officer got a little singed. At that point the fire threatened the officer’s life.”
The latest wrong-way crash follows a series of collisions caused by drivers in the Sacramento region who enter freeways in the wrong direction.
In early May, an Arbuckle mother and her two teenage daughters were killed in a freeway collision that occurred when a wrong-way driver crashed head-on into their car.
Sofia Ramirez, 38, and daughters Alyssa Santiago, 17, and Brenda Santiago, 15, died about 10:20 p.m. in the crash on Interstate 505 near Highway 16 in Yolo County. The wrong-way driver, 36-year-old Francisco Salazar Garcia, also died.
A driver traveling the wrong way on Highway 50 in the early morning hours of April 22 slammed into a pickup with three men. The collision killed 19-year-old Elizabet Torres-Zela, identified by the CHP as the wrong-way driver. The men in the pickup were identified as Pepito Rivera, 81, Nick Bacareza, 74, and Tony Kilayko, 76, all of Stockton.
Officials on Tuesday said Torres-Zela had a blood alcohol level of .20 percent, more than twice the legal limit.
In addition, on Jan. 10, a similar crash on Interstate 80 killed three young people from Placer County and injured Aaron Jordon Caudillo, whom prosecutors have accused of speeding, drunkenly, the wrong way on the highway. Caudillo spent nearly two weeks in the hospital after the black sedan officials said he was driving with its lights off slammed head-on into the teens' Buick just after 2 a.m. He has a court appearance scheduled for Tuesday.
The teens who died in that crash were Kendra Langham, 18, Mathew Beardwit, 18, and Matthew Azar, 19.
State officials say wrong-way freeway crashes are rare, but do happen and often have catastrophic consequences. Prior to the recent crashes, there have been 33 wrong-way collisions on freeways over the past four years, killing 75 people.
Usually the wrong-way driver is drunk or confused by dementia, officials said.
“These are probably DUI drivers,” said Hertzell. “We know that wrong-way drivers are often drunk, but I still can’t wrap my mind around being so inebriated that I could not tell if I was going the wrong way.”
The wrong-way driver typically enters the freeway on an off-ramp, and often will drive in the fast lane, mistakenly believing it is the slow lane.
Tom Hallenbeck, Caltrans chief of traffic operations said the state highway agency typically investigates the exit ramps believed to be used by wrong-way drives to determine if modifications need to be made to further alert confused drivers that they are going the wrong way before they enter the freeway.
California Highway Patrol officials say drivers on freeways who see a car headed in their direction should immediately pull as far to the right as possible. Hertzell said that it is a good idea to avoid the fast lane if possible when driving late at night.
“Stay out of the fast lane unless you can see tailights ahead of you,” he said. “If you don’t need to be in the fast lane, stay out of it. Look at horizon not at the end of the hood of your car. Keep your eyes down the road so you can anticipate any evasive action you may need to take.”