Back-Seat Driver

Back-seat Driver: Caltrans studying I-80 construction zone crashes

Tony Bizjak
Tony Bizjak

Crash woes at Caltrans’ construction zone on Interstate 80 in north Sacramento continued this month with eight incidents in eight days through Tuesday, resulting in six minor injuries.

In nearly six weeks since Caltrans reconfigured the eastbound lanes of the freeway, there have been 45 crashes and 26 injuries, according to California Highway Patrol data. That’s triple the rate that had occurred on that 10-mile stretch in the month prior to the alterations.

Are Caltrans’ new lane configurations too tricky for drivers to handle? Some drivers say yes, and have pointed out several spots along the construction zone that they say are scary and dangerous.

But some transportation officials said they think the crashes are caused by distracted drivers who don’t realize they have to be more alert in the construction zone, where traffic can slow or even stop at any minute. The area in question is the eastbound side of the freeway from West El Camino to Longview Drive. Many of the crashes have been rear-enders, a telltale sign of drivers failing to watch what’s happening ahead of them. One woman admitted she was looking at her mapping system, not traffic, just before she ran into the car ahead of her.

Caltrans spokesman Dennis Keaton said last week that drivers most likely are being impatient and inattentive. But in an email to The Bee this week, Keaton acknowledged that safety inspectors are reviewing the CHP data to see if there are any patterns to the crashes.

“Any additional signage or changes will be determined after the safety team and project team finish assessing the numbers, locations, and any additional information they've gathered,” Keaton wrote.

Driver Liz Johnson was in a crash on I-80 last week that she knows is construction-related. A nearby car swerved to avoid a large orange Caltrans traffic drum that was lying in the middle of a lane. That caused the car behind it to swerve into Johnson’s car. “She spun 180 degrees after she hit me. She T-boned me. I couldn’t get out of the car.”

The crash occurred just as cars were exiting a section of freeway Caltrans is calling “express lanes,” where cars are flanked by concrete medians on both sides. “A friend of mine called it pinball alley,” Johnson said.

Joyce Hayhoe told us her husband, Gary, was rear-ended in the express lanes last week on his motorcycle by a tow truck when traffic suddenly slowed. He suffered minor injuries. He saw the truck coming at him and realized it wasn’t going to slow in time, but he couldn’t find a place to pull out of the way, Hayhoe said.

“My husband doesn’t want me to go anywhere near it now,” Hayhoe said.

But driver Jeffrey Callison reports he enjoyed driving in the express lanes and felt safer there because that part of the freeway – sometimes one lane, sometimes two – is separated by a barrier from the “local” lanes, where the worst traffic jams are occurring and where cars sometimes struggle to merge on the freeway ramps. “It was like driving in ‘Lexus lanes’ but without having to pay the pesky toll,” he said. “The one-lane stretch forces people to drive rationally, i.e., without frequent lane changing.”

Drivers have complained about cars cutting unsafely through an opening that Caltrans has constructed between express and local lanes near Northgate Boulevard. Several of them said drivers are even running over orange plastic posts, apparently making a last-minute decision to get into the faster lanes.

Sacramento City Public Works Director Jerry Way, who said he has driven that section of freeway multiple times, says he believes the construction zone is set up correctly. He emphasized the need for additional driver awareness in work zones, and said he thinks the problem might be driver inattention, an issue that is increasingly concerning him and other transportation officials.

“I am sickened by behavior I see, drivers texting and talking on phones,” Way said. The high number of rear-end collisions suggests drivers are on autopilot, he said. “When you take a roadway that people have driven for some time, autopilot kicks in. Couple that inattention with a change in (road conditions), and you are going to get rear-end collisions.”

Caltrans officials made a point of noting to us that they have a statewide “Be Work Zone Alert” campaign out now, featuring children of road workers asking drivers to slow down and be more attentive in cone zones where crews often work close to fast-moving traffic. It’s the latest version of the state’s decade-plus “Slow for the Cone Zone” campaign.

The current set of lane configurations on the eastbound side are expected to last for up to a year while workers completely rebuild that side of the freeway. Caltrans then will move the project to the westbound lanes.

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