The crashes have been as bizarre and nightmarish as they have been catastrophic.
Four times this year, wrong-way drivers on Sacramento-area freeways have plowed head-on into other vehicles – each time at night –taking 14 lives and leaving highway safety officials scurrying for answers. Alcohol was involved in at least two of the cases, officials said.
The most recent incident occurred at 12:30 a.m. Tuesday when a Ford 150 pickup slammed into a Lexus on Interstate 80 near Madison Avenue and exploded in flames, killing the pickup driver and two occupants of the Lexus.
California Highway Patrol Officer Chad Hertzell said the truck’s unidentified male driver was traveling eastbound in the fast lane after he apparently got on the freeway in the wrong direction at Watt Avenue. The occupants of the Lexus were identified as driver Zahid Arshad, 25, of South San Francisco, and Nicholas Sharma, 24, of Hayward.
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CHP officers in the vicinity were alerted to the wrong-way driver, but could not head off a collision. An officer on the scene reported the pickup was on fire when he arrived, and the driver appeared to be alive.
“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 of the cab caught on fire. The officer had to pull out. The officer got singed. At that point the fire threatened the officer’s life.”
The crash follows a series of similar collisions caused by wrong-way drivers.
In early May, an Arbuckle mother and her two teenage daughters were killed in a head-on collision on Interstate 505 near Highway 16 in Yolo County. That crash occurred at 10:20 p.m. The 36-year-old wrong-way driver also died.
In late April, a 19-year-old driver entered westbound Highway 50 in West Sacramento and drove the wrong way through downtown Sacramento before slamming into a pickup truck near Stockton Boulevard. The fiery crash killed the wrong-way driver as well as three men from Stockton.
CHP officials said Tuesday that the wrong-way driver, Elizabet Torres-Zela, had a blood alcohol level of 0.20 percent, more than two times the presumptive legal limit.
In January, a similar crash on I-80 near Madison Avenue killed three teenagers from Placer County and injured Aaron Jordon Caudillo, whom prosecutors have accused of speeding, drunkenly, the wrong way with his lights off. That crash occurred just after 2 a.m.
In each case, officials note the wrong-way driver was alone in his or her car, and is believed to have entered the freeway mistakenly on an offramp. State CHP crash data indicate that most wrong-way freeway crashes involve drunk drivers, although some may be confused by dementia.
“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.”
Wrong-way drivers also typically will drive in the fast lane, mistakenly believing it is the slow lane, officials said.
Tuesday’s crash prompted Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez, D-Pomona, to say he will meet with state transportation officials “to find out what we can do now to prevent further loss of life.”
“I am angry and deeply saddened that three more lives were lost to another senseless wrong-way driving accident,” Rodriguez said in a press statement. Rodriguez has authored a bill, AB 162, which asks the state Department of Transportation to study wrong-way crashes and look at safety measures in other states. “People are dying every week and California is lagging behind other states in efforts to prevent these crashes,” he said.
State officials say they plan to review information from the crashes to see if there is something new or different about these latest incidents.
“It may be a cluster rather than trend,” said state Office of Traffic Safety spokesman Chris Cochran. “But we have to wait and see.”
Data compiled by the CHP show that wrong-way freeway crashes account for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all California roadway fatalities. Prior to the recent spate of crashes, there have been 49 wrong-way collisions on divided highways in California from 2011 to 2014, killing 69 people, according to data from the CHP.
There have been even more injury-only crashes caused by wrong-way drivers on divided highways in the state. CHP data show 237 crashes between 2011 and 2014, injuring 346 people.
Tom Hallenbeck, Caltrans chief of traffic operations, said his agency routinely reviews the configurations and signage at exit ramps used by wrong-way drivers to determine if modifications need to be made to further alert drivers that they are going the wrong way before they enter the freeway.
Freeway off ramps are marked with “wrong way” signs and lined with red road reflectors, state highway officials said.
CHP officials say drivers on freeways who see a car headed in their direction should immediately pull as far to the right as possible and call 911 to alert officers.
Hertzell said that it is a good idea to avoid the fast lane if possible when driving late at night.
“If you don’t need to be in the fast lane, stay out of it,” he said. “Keep your eyes down the road so you can anticipate any evasive action you may need to take.”