Crashes are up in I-80 construction zone

Traffic crashes have tripled on Interstate 80 in North Sacramento since Caltrans made lane changes last month for major construction, according to California Highway Patrol data reviewed by The Sacramento Bee.

Thirty-seven crashes and 20 injuries were reported on the 10-mile section in the month after crews moved and tightened the eastbound lanes. That’s far more than in the previous four weeks, when 11 crashes and three injuries were reported.

Caltrans is in the middle of a several-year, $133 million project on I-80, entirely rebuilding the freeway and adding new carpool lanes and outside merge lanes. The construction zone runs through Natomas and Del Paso Heights, from just west of the West El Camino Avenue interchange to Longview Drive, near Watt Avenue.

A Caltrans spokesman expressed surprise when informed of the crash numbers by The Bee on Tuesday, and said he will alert the project engineer to conduct a review and determine if there are additional safety steps the state might take.

“With these numbers, we definitely are going to be looking into it,” Caltrans’ Dennis Keaton said.

Crews last month turned two interior lanes in the eastbound direction into temporary “express lanes,” bracketed by concrete median barriers. Next to those lanes, but separated from them by a barrier, are two outer lanes designated for “local” traffic. Those lanes connect with on- and offramps. The express lanes do not. On certain portions of the project area, the express section and local section of the freeway contract to one lane each.

The odd configuration has drawn criticism from some drivers who say it is confusing and has caused traffic to come to a standstill in the outer one or two lanes. Others who use the express lanes say they find traffic to be light in those lanes, allowing them to pass through the construction area easily. Traffic in the express lanes sometimes travels at 65 miles per hour or more, according to CHP reports, although the construction zone maximum limit has been set at 55.

Most of the crashes reviewed by The Bee were minor. Many are rear-enders, typically caused when drivers fail to realize traffic ahead has slowed or even stopped because of construction-related congestion. One driver told the CHP she was looking down at her GPS mapping system and didn’t realize traffic ahead had slowed until it was too late to avoid hitting the car ahead of her.

The worst injuries appear to have occurred in two separate crashes that took place during the Friday afternoon commute on Aug. 1. A BMW was shoved into the back of a big rig by a Ford pickup that hit it from behind.

“That car was just crunched,” CHP North Area Office spokesman Chad Hertzell said. Two occupants suffered numerous cuts and bruises.

Two hours later, three cars collided near Longview Drive, sending two of them rolling onto their roofs. One victim suffered head cuts. Another complained of head and back pain.

Four crashes occurred on the first day of the new lane configurations, CHP data show. The worst involved a motorcyclist who was knocked off his bike and appeared to suffer a broken ankle. The cyclist told officers a vehicle clipped him after it cut through a brief opening in the concrete barriers between the “local” and “express” lanes. That vehicle drove over plastic orange safety poles to get into the fast lanes and left without stopping, according to the CHP report.

Nearly one-third of the crashes happened in the first six days after Caltrans made the lane changes. The number of crashes leveled off after that, but five more crashes happened between this past Saturday and Monday, causing four minor injuries. The crashes have been largely spread out along the 10-mile corridor.

“It’s clear, people are not paying attention to traffic slowing ahead of them,” CHP’s Hertzell said. Some appear to be making unsafe lane changes.

Caltrans officials say that while they try to make their construction zones safe, they can’t stop impatient or inattentive drivers from crashing.

“People are supposed to keep an eye on what’s ahead of them,” Caltrans’ Keaton said. “It is going to be stop-and-go traffic. If you are bumping into someone in front of you, there is not much we can do about that. There isn’t anything in the (construction design) book that is going to tell us how we keep them from being impatient.”

Keaton said the current lane configurations are expected to be in place for up to a year to allow crews to demolish and rebuild the older eastbound lanes. Construction workers already have built new carpool lanes on both sides of the freeway. Those two new lanes currently are being used as the eastbound express lanes, and are separated from westbound traffic by a temporary concrete barrier.

Sometime next year, Caltrans will reverse the process and rebuild the westbound lanes.

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