Drivers who regularly pass by the Crows Landing Road interchange of northbound Highway 99 in Modesto are familiar with the left-right shuffle:
Cars in the slow lane merge left to avoid slow merging traffic from the corkscrew onramp. Within moments, cars in the fast lane merge right to get off at downtown Modesto exits, particularly during the morning commute.
The mix of cars along the stretch produces a steady stream of crashes: 54 last year in the four-tenths of a mile before and after the interchange, according to the California Highway Patrol. There were 63 accidents in 2006 and 69 in 2005. That's an average of more than one per week.
In the past month, two people have been seriously injured in separate crashes, including a Keyes man on a motorcycle May 20 who a witness said tried to pass a slow-moving vehicle in the fast lane, lost control and crashed. In the other accident, the CHP believes a Lathrop woman drifted into the center median and overcorrected April 29, sending her car spinning across the freeway before crashing into sand barrels near the offramp.
"There are a combination of factors there," said CHP officer Tom Killian as he drove the stretch on a recent morning. "The onramp from Crows Landing has a very tight radius, so there is not a lot of room there for people to accelerate in order to match the speed of vehicles on the highway, especially big trucks. So vehicles move from the slow lane to the fast lane to give them room. And people are at the same time moving from left to right to get off at Tuolumne or Central Modesto."
A bend in the road limits visibility.
The California Department of Transportation conducted a safety investigation of the area in February 2007 and concluded no changes were needed, said Lisa Balcom, a spokeswoman for Caltrans. She said the department's traffic safety branch began another investigation Jan. 29.
Transportation and highway officials said the best thing to do is to slow down, keep a safe distance from other vehicles and drive defensively, including leaving a three- second cushion with the closest vehicle.
Motorists "will go around the curve and all of a sudden, you see brake lights and that takes their eyes off traffic," Killian said.
He said the majority of drivers follow too closely for their speed. It takes three- quarters of a second for the typical driver to perceive danger and three-quarters of a second to react, which means that if someone is traveling 65 mph, he or she will have covered about 145 feet before reacting.
"And with that curve, there is not a lot of time to react to a situation," he said. "So that's why we encourage people to slow down and drive defensively."
Bee staff writer Inga Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2324.