Caltrans hears Hwy 395 concerns

Officials present upcoming safety precautions, public weighs in on driving ‘Toward Zero Deaths’

Caltrans hears Hwy 395 concernsBy BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

“Toward Zero Deaths” was announced as Caltrans’ new motto at a recent meeting on safety on U.S. Highway 395. Caltrans District 9 Director Brent Green said the department has shifted its motto in recent years from “Improving Mobility Across California.”

A battery of Caltrans representatives, as well as officials from Mojave, Barstow and Victorville California Highway Patrol, were on hand during a small community meeting on Friday, June 7, hosted by the Department of Transporta-tion. Assemblymember Vince Fong, who helped coordinate the task force to address road safety, was also present.

According to David Knudsen from Caltrans District 8 external affairs, Caltrans officials formed a task force to look at Hwy 395 as traffic fatalities have increased in recent years. There has also been a local effort to spread awareness of the lives lost and impacted by accidents – many the result of unsafe passing – on the highway.

While Haissam Yahya of Caltrans District 8 traffic operations said that accidents have decreased on the highway, Mojave CHP Lieutenant John Williams reported that fatal collisions have been on the rise since 2014. The number of fatal collisions annually has climbed from two in 2014 to six in 2018 according to CHP.

According to the News Review’s records, there were more than nine fatal collisions between Ridgecrest and Adelanto in 2018 alone, resulting in 12 deaths, including those of Ridgecrest residents Jack and Leslie Brown. Williams said some accidents may be handled by local jurisdictions such as the Adelanto Police Department, but offered to meet and discuss the discrepancy.

“There’s a need for collecting all of the data,” said Fong during the meeting. “We can put all that data together and provide it to the community. Using that data, we could try to identify solutions to minimize the things that we can prevent.”

The trend is corroborated by an Eastern Sierra corridor enhancement study which says, “a majority of analyzed highway segments have a fatality rate higher than the statewide average, but a total accident rate that is usually lower than the average.”

Caltrans officials gave an overview of current projects to address safety, the most significant being additional striping and “channelizers” (tall, slender cones mounted to the road) every 12 feet along most of the highway from Ridgecrest to Interstate 15.

There are also areas where the medians and shoulders will be widened, and about 4.5 miles of passing lanes that were removed in 2014 will be replaced.

But according to Yahya, passing lanes can actually increase accidents where motorists “race” through lanes to get ahead, which is why the lanes were removed in the first place.

Caltrans will also add rumble strips and increased signage throughout certain parts of the highway, but Green admitted that signs aren’t always enough.

“We think it’s a very good thing,” said Green. “Signage can be huge, but some of it can be less effective. Sometimes we think ‘We need a sign here,’ and we go out and there’s already a sign there.”

Attendee Timothy Neipp asked if Caltrans had compared data from the two-lane section of 395 to the south of Ridgecrest with the four-lane section of 395 to the north. Yahya said they were “apples and oranges” in terms of volume and that the southern portion doesn’t have the traffic to justify four lanes.

“The reason I ask, the elephant in the room, is that years ago there was money dedicated to widen 395 to four lanes,” said Neipp. “But that never happened.

“That probably was going to be addressed aggressively, and now it is not. I see a lot of band-aids being put on it. But in terms of real solutions, it seems that has been skipped over.”

Fong interjected and said that the state needed to come up with short-term, medium-term and long-term solutions. He said the long-term solution would be additional lanes, but that “funding is the key part.”

But nobody had a good answer as to where the decades-old allocations for 395 construction has gone. “I don’t know that it disappeared,” said Terri Kasinga with Caltrans District 9 public affairs. “It’s just that things got broken up into separate segments. As time goes on and they design projects, costs go up.”

Kasinga referred to San Bernardino Associated Govern-ments, which split into the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority and Council of Governments, who would have used the funding for Hwy 395. But the SBCTA is now lead on widening projects that are mostly taking place south of Adelanto.

In terms of law enforcement, Williams said, all three CHP offices were communicating and collaborating on addressing safety concerns. CHP employs all available personnel on certain days – some announced but others kept under wraps – to do saturation patrols in an effort to crack down on unsafe driving.

But even law enforcement isn’t immune to the difficulties of navigating Hwy 395.

“We are being very aggressive out there, but one of the hurdles we run into is where all the signage and passing lanes are,” said Williams. “It’s hard for us sometimes to get back into traffic safely when we see something. We have to strategically place our officers throughout the 395 where they can do the most enforcement.”

Williams said that patrol vehicles have no better means of safely passing a slow-moving truck in a no-passing zone to catch up with an offending driver.

He also said that it’s more than just unsafe passing and bad behavior that results in fatal collisions, making it difficult to address all safety concerns.

“It’s everything — sleeping, drinking, reckless driving,” said Williams. “We’ve gone back five years but … there’s not a common pattern. There’s obviously crossing over double yellow lines; people are making really bad decisions. But that’s not the entirety. When you go through the data, I’m baffled sometimes how we got there.”

In discussion of when another public meeting would be scheduled, attendees brought up a similar meeting hosted by the Ridgecrest Chamber of Commerce a year ago, with different officials from Caltrans.

“Last year I was at the meeting,” said member of the public Jennifer Cotterell. “Is this going to be a year from now we’re going to have another meeting where it’s Vince Fong and an entirely different group of people?”

Fong emphasized that some “continuity” from Caltrans would be important for future meetings. He closed the meeting by reiterating the importance of combining all of the available data to appropriately analyze collisions and other accidents.

“In the short term, barring hundreds of millions of dollars, we need to get to zero fatalities as soon as possible,” said Fong.

The News Review will report on updates on 395 projects as information becomes available.

Story First Published: 2019-06-14