Spate of accidents on Highway 395 spurs discussion
How many fatalities are too many for one short but dicey section of road?
The recent quadruple-fatality collision on Highway 395 south of Bridgeport—in an area that has already seen several similar incidents —has many people questioning the safety of 395’s heavily-traveled but poorly-divided two-lane sections, which have seen an alarming increase in fatal collisions in 2018.
The latest wreck happened on the evening of March 30, when a Subaru Impreza crossed the center line of the highway and didn’t cross back over in time. The collision apparently occurred just after the Impreza navigated a blind turn with double-yellow center lines, but the scene of the crash was just past an area of dotted yellow lines where passing is legal. This suggests that the Subaru began a legal pass but failed to pull back into its lane before going around the blind turn, where it encountered an oncoming vehicle, a Chevrolet Silverado pickup towing a fifth-wheel trailer.
That the Subaru may have been passing touches on a central problem with two-lane roads: people want to pass, whether because they are in a hurry or because there is a slow vehicle ahead of them. But passing on these kinds of roads is not always safe.
In just the first three-and-a-half months of 2018, there have been four fatal wrecks on 395 in Mono County, according to the CHP, compared to an average of three per year and three in all of 2017.
It was enough to prompt Mono County officials to discuss sending a letter to Caltrans, asking for improvements to this section of highway.
Accidents are far more likely to happen on busy two-lane highways than on divided highways with more lanes. According to a 1981 study by the Texas Transportation Institute, for a given average daily traffic volume, two-lane highways without a shoulder reported far more crashes per million vehicle miles than four-lane highways without a shoulder.
Terry Erlwein of Caltrans’ District 9 office said at the Local Transportation Commission meeting on Monday that shoulder-widening has proven to decrease accidents by 50%.
In addition to the relative ease of drifting into opposing traffic, the California Highway Patrol says that it’s hard to catch distracted drivers on two-lane roads because, with only one lane of traffic in each direction, police cannot drive alongside other cars and see what drivers are doing.
As April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month, the CHP says it is trying to raise awareness about the dangers of using devices or performing other tasks while driving.
“If we stop a vehicle, then maybe 10 more vehicles will go by, and maybe it’ll make those people aware that, hey, I need to slow down,” CHP Officer Elena Villa told The Sheet.
Unfortunately, the distracted driving problem is only getting worse, according to numerous studies. A report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Association found that traffic deaths are up by 7.2 percent since 2014, which constitutes the largest increase since 1966. Distracted driving accounts for 25 percent of motor vehicle fatalities, and with the advent of in-car entertainment systems, cellphones are now just one of several distractions.
Based on data from the Everdrive app, 96 percent of drivers used their phones at least once while driving in a 30-day period. According to a report by the World Health Organization, drivers are four times as likely to be in a collision while using a phone than while giving their undivided attention to driving. And drivers who talk on the phone—whether or not it is hands-free—are still somewhat impaired by what experts refer to as the cognitive distraction of talking on the phone.
Distracted driving is extremely deadly on two-lane roads. Another study, this one by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, found that drifting over the center line was the biggest cause of fatal head-on accidents on two-lane highways. This scenario, often caused by inattentive, distracted, or drowsy drivers, accounted for 65 percent of all fatal accidents studied.
Surprisingly, passing was the cause of only 3 percent of these accidents, and as CHP (Bridgeport Office) Commander Bill Boyes said at Monday’s Local Transportation Commission meeting held in Mammoth, there was no evidence in any of the eight collisions since May, 2017 (resulting in 10 fatalities) of illegal passing.
A bigger issue is drunk driving, said Boyes. “We [CHP] issue nine DUI citations per month … that’s way too many [for a County this size],” he said.
Of the eight collisions referenced above, alcohol/drugs were a contributing factor in three of them.
“Two-lane roads are not inherently dangerous,” said Florene Trainor of Caltrans. “We respond to areas of concern where an accident rate is measured above an average range.” Caltrans does not yet have plans for improving the infamous area south of Bridgeport, although it did recently erect a lighted sign stating the speed limit at the south end.
Although there have been lots of previous accidents on Highway 395, the latest one has been particularly talked-about. At the April 3 Mono County Board of Supervisors meeting, several Supervisors brought up not only the accident, but also plans for moving forward.