The intersection where Stanislaus County Deputy Tony Hinostroza died in a crash last month had undergone upgrades two years ago as a result of a previous tragedy. But the number of crashes there has increased dramatically since then, according to data from the California Highway Patrol.
In 2007, six people, including three young children, were killed when the SUV they were in was struck by an Amtrak train on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks just east of Terminal Avenue at Claribel Road.
The upgrades were nine years in the making. During that time, recommendations to improve safety at the intersection were made, scrapped and made again. And a $1.1 million grant was secured for the project in 2012, but construction was stalled by a lengthy right-of-way purchasing process.
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The result: Traffic lights replaced a four-way stop, including two for eastbound drivers — one at the tracks and the other at the intersection. An 8-inch concrete barrier on Claribel was installed to prevent eastbound drivers from traversing the opposing lane to skirt the railroad crossing arm. And striping and signs were added to direct drivers to stop before the tracks on red, west of the limit line where Terminal intersects Claribel.
No vehicles have been struck by trains at the intersection since 2007, but some drivers complain the upgraded intersection now is confusing.
Since the improvements were completed in April 2016, the average number of crashes there has increased by more than five times. The amount of traffic at that intersection has remained the same since 2007, officials say.
County Public Works Director David Leamon said his department was not aware of the increase in crashes at that intersection until contacted by The Bee. It has now launched an investigation to determine if anything should be changed.
From April 2016 to Nov. 25, 2018, the night Deputy Hinostroza crashed into the traffic light pole in the southeast corner, there have been 64 collisions. That compares to just 25 in the six previous years combined from 2010 through 2015.
Twenty percent of the 25 crashes resulted in injuries, one of them a DUI fatal, compared with nearly half of the 64. Hinostroza’s was the only death of the 64.
Hinostroza, who was heading east on Claribel with his lights and siren on, hit the recently installed concrete barrier just before colliding with the pole, according to the CHP. The crash remains under investigation, including other factors like how fast he was driving.
Traffic has remained steady over the years
Despite the increase in wrecks, there hasn’t been an increase in traffic through the intersection since the train crash in 2007. The number of daily vehicles through the area has held steady at approximately 11,500, said Andrew Malizia, senior civil engineer for the county.
Malizia will study the CHP data and consider factors like the time of day crashes are occurring, the weather conditions and the primary collision factors.
“We will try to see if there is an engineering solution to the problem,” Leamon said. “That is the quandary that traffic engineers have is how do you modify driver behavior? Is there something we can do to help like signage or better lighting; there are a bunch of things that go into the analysis.”
The top primary collision factor before the upgrades to Claribel and Terminal was unsafe speed. After the upgrades, people most often crashed as a result of right of way violations, like a motorist turning left in front of through traffic.
Multiple meetings between the county, the railroad and the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates the railroad, resulted in the 2016 upgrades.
According to Bee archives, the CPUC originally recommended removing the stop sign for east-west traffic on Claribel. Leamon did not know why that idea was abandoned but said the design there was focused on railroad safety.
“In general when you are talking about the interaction with a railroad and a road, then you are more interested in the railroad safety than the road safety,” he said. “The concern at that moment was to improve the safety for the (motorists) crossing the railroad, to reduce the risk of having another tragic event.”
Three young children among crash victims
The 2007 accident happened the afternoon of May 8. Maricruz Corral was driving a Geo Tracker east on Claribel. She stopped at the stop sign at the tracks with the front end of the Tracker sticking over the track’s first rail, according Bee archives.
As an Amtrak train approached the crossing, Corral tried to back up but couldn’t because there were cars behind her. Corral apparently panicked and pulled forward onto the tracks into the path of the train traveling 79 mph, CHP investigators said.
All six people in the vehicle died: Corral and her 5 and 3-year-old sons, along with Corral’s friend and her 5-year-old son and 19-year-old niece.
Surviving family members sued the county and the railroad in federal court. The family settled with the county in 2011 for $1.5 million and with the railroad a year later for an undisclosed amount.
Attorneys for Corral’s husband argued the crossing was hazardous because it was poorly marked.
At the time, there was one sign instructing drivers not to stop on the tracks.
Today, diagonal striping with the words “keep clear” starts west of the tracks on Claribel and continues to the limit line on Terminal.
A sign with an arrow points to a line where drivers should stop on red, and additional instructions in the road say to “wait here.”
The signalization allows for traffic on Claribel to clear the intersection when trains are coming before the railroad lights flash, bells sound and the crossing arms come down.
Eastbound drivers have two lights: one before the tracks and the other at the intersection.
If eastbound traffic has a green light when a train is approaching, both lights will turn yellow then red.
But then the light at the intersection turns green again in order to clear the tracks of motorists who are still on the tracks or in the 40 feet of space between the tracks and Terminal.
Some drivers find this very confusing.
Malizia said it is the biggest complaint they get about the intersection, and Claribel and Terminal is not the only one of its kind.
‘County has to fix this problem’
Hatch Road and Santa Fe Avenue, north of Hughson, is configured the same way and got the same upgrades as Claribel and Terminal last year.
Ceres resident Dave Livingston said he almost got rear-ended there recently because he had stopped before the tracks at the location indicated by the striping and signs but saw the driver behind him approaching too fast.
Assuming that driver was looking at the green light at the intersection and not the red one before the tracks, Livingston said, he made the decision to drive forward because the crossing arms hadn’t come down yet even through he could see the train approaching.
“I chose to drive across before I got rear-ended and pushed onto the track for a train that wouldn’t be able to stop,” Livingston wrote in an email to The Bee. “County has to fix this problem before people are killed.”
Traffic signal heads, the metal parts that act as a sort of visor for the lights, are supposed to be angled in a way that obscures the green light for motorists who are farther back behind the tracks.
But it is not a perfect system, and how well a motorist behind the first light can see the green at the second varies based on the height and position of the vehicle, Malizia said.
“We can’t hide it from everyone,” he said.
The CHP in September conducted operations at a number of intersections with tracks and issued six verbal warnings to people stopping on the tracks at Claribel and Terminal within a 90-minute period, said Officer Thomas Olsen.
“It’s people just not paying attention to the signage,” he said. “It doesn’t benefit you at all pulling closer to the railroad track. You are still stuck at a red light.”
Train track’s diagonal route plays role
Regardless of what traffic control devices are used, there is one inherent issue with the intersection that affects visibility.
“The problem, I suppose, from a traffic engineering standpoint is we like 90-degree intersections where they join perpendicular to each other,” Leamon said. “The railroad is going diagonally across the Valley, so we wind up with intersections on a skew. It is harder to see … in a skewed intersection.”
Terminal and Claribel is the northernmost four-way intersection of more than a dozen in Stanislaus County that are “on a skew” with tracks running parallel to one of the roads.
The southernmost is about 19 miles away at Santa Fe Avenue and East Avenue southeast of Denair. In Stanislaus County, the tracks run through Riverbank, Modesto, Empire, Hughson and Denair.
Many of those intersections are outside cities and don’t have the traffic to justify signalization, but the design at Claribel and Terminal is the model for those skewed intersections with more traffic.
The same upgrades were completed at Hatch and Santa Fe in November 2017, and they are expected to be completed at Geer Road and Santa Fe, south of Hughson, by the end of January.
Hatch and Santa Fe has twice as many vehicles traveling through it daily than Claribel and Terminal, but the average number of crashes there each year is fewer than nine.
In the 12 months since the signals were turned on at Hatch and Santa Fe, there have been 15 crashes, compared to 11 in the previous 12 months, according to data from the CHP.
While there has been an increase, it is not as dramatic as what is being seen at Claribel and Terminal.
As the county tries to discover a reason for this and possibly a solution, the long-term fix has been in the works for decades.
The North County Corridor will take Claribel over the railroad tracks at Terminal, making it an overpass there.
“A grade separation ... would eliminate most of the types of crashes that we have had in the recent past,” Leamon said. “And that is the ultimate solution there for railroad (and traffic) safety.”
The route for corridor was approved last year, and the county is now working on obtaining grants to fund the project. The first phase of the project, between Oakdale and Claus roads, is expected to cost $100 million, Leamon said.
Environmental studies and final design need to be completed before construction can begin, possibly in about five years.