Madera County Supervisor David Rogers speaks with firsthand knowledge about the dangers of Highway 99, a highway that gained notoriety last year as the most dangerous in the United States.
Over the past four days, Highway 99, its offramps and interchanges have been closed for prolonged periods, a sobering reminder of the highway’s dangers just before one of the busiest travel weekends of the year.
On Tuesday, a fiery gas truck crash near Atwater killed the driver. On Wednesday, there was a fiery truck crash on the Highway 152 onramp from Highway 99. On Friday, a hay truck crashed and dumped its load on the same Highway 152 interchange. Later in the morning, traffic was slowed for a fatal crash on Highway 99 in downtown Fresno.
In early 2016, Rogers was driving north in the Highway 99 fast lane on a drizzly night near Chowchilla. He spied a big rig in his rear-view mirror in the slow lane, but creeping up on him. As the truck passed him, the driver veered into his lane. Rogers, boxed in by other traffic with nowhere to go, yanked his steering wheel left and drove his pickup into a muddy embankment.
It wasn’t the first time he was run off the road by a trucker, but it was the worst: three days in the hospital with a concussion and internal bleeding.
We have serious problems on Highway 99.
David Rogers, Madera County supervisor
Rogers has to use Highway 99 every day to drive from his home near Chowchilla to Madera.
Two truck crashes last week on highways 99 and 152 were within a mile of his home, and a third fatal truck crash in Merced County reflects what he’s known for decades.
“We have serious problems on Highway 99,” he said. He said he and his wife have experienced many serious near-misses on the highway and the interchange, and he suspects many drivers have had similar experiences.
He frequently travels to Sacramento and Fresno and notices something about Madera’s segment of the freeway – it’s the largest stretch of two-lane roadway north of Fresno.
In fact, almost all of Madera County’s share of Highway 99, some 55 miles, is two travel lanes in each direction.
Nearly all of Highway 99 between Visalia and Delano also is two lanes in each direction. But Madera’s two lanes are handling heavier traffic coming from and going through Fresno, an urban center three times larger than Visalia, which means a more significant choke point as the highway narrows from four to three lanes in Fresno and to two lanes in Madera County.
“We’re getting zero attention from the state on the plight of Highway 99 in our area,” Rogers said.
In 2015, an initial environmental study was done by Caltrans on a proposal to widen 7.6 miles of Highway 99 from two lanes to three in each direction north and south of the city of Madera.
Traffic engineer Chris Kinzel with Pleasanton-based TJKM Transportation Consultants, who worked for Fresno County more than 40 years ago, said parts of the highway never got built out to correspond with the growing population.
“Up and down the Valley, there are older four-lane freeways that are overcapacity, and they need to be updated to current full freeway standards and widened to six lanes,” Kinzel said. “Full freeway designs improve safety.”
Last year’s study of the 50 most dangerous roads in the United States used data collected between 2011 and 2015.
The study by ValuePenguin, a consumer advocacy organization, revealed that Highway 99 had 62.3 fatal crashes per 100 miles.
Highway 99 was rated the “darkest highway” in America and the highway with the second-highest number of DUI drivers.
However, the past week’s crashes all took place in daylight, and none was DUI-related.
Cory Burkarth, a Caltrans spokesman in Fresno, said several of those fatal collisions cited in the study involved pedestrians crossing the freeway.
In Madera County, California Highway Patrol Sgt. Lincoln McKenna said, the crashes on the Highway 152 interchange were not about the roadway as much as about the drivers.
The hay truck crash occurred because the driver was going too fast for the interchange and was “top heavy.” The Wednesday crash was caused by a driver who became confused as he drove from Highway 99 to Highway 152. He had meant to stay on Highway 99.
“The transition road from northbound 99 to westbound 152 is just a long, sweeping curve,” McKenna said. “In my opinion, at a safe speed, there should be no issues with that.”
He said the transition from southbound Highway 99 to westbound Highway 152 is “a tighter curve.”
The past week for the Highway 99 corridor was “just one of those things … luck of the draw,” McKenna said.
McKenna said Highway 99 traffic is squeezed into two lanes for motorists traveling from Fresno County into Madera County.
A Caltrans study of 2015 traffic flow found that, at peak, 5,900 vehicles per hour were passing Herndon Avenue on Highway 99 entering Madera County. That number swells to 6,400 per peak hour in downtown Madera. By comparison, the peak in Tulare County along Highway 99, in the other significant two-lane stretch, is 5,200.
“It’s just a matter of the number of vehicles that travel that roadway,” McKenna said. “In our county, you get almost the same number of vehicles (funneled) into a two-lane freeway.”
Up and down the Valley, there are older four-lane freeways ways that are overcapacity.
David Kinzel, transportation engineer
Highway 152 west from northbound Highway 99 collects 5,000 vehicles per peak hour, while Highway 152 to southbound Highway 99 peaks out at 1,250.
McKenna’s advice is for motorists to slow down, wear their seat belts, and don’t drink and drive. The two big rig drivers (on Highway 152) were wearing seat belts and walked away with no injuries, he said.