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CHP seeks to take Hwy. 99 off deadliest list
• Safety comes down to ‘bread and butter’ safe driving tactics
99 through Ceres
Highway 99, seen here running through downtown Ceres, is the deadlest highway in California according to a new study. The Modesto area CHP office stresses that basic common sense, defensive driving and courtesy will go a long way to prevent needless deaths in Stanislaus County. - photo by Jeff Benziger

Highway 99, which cuts through the heart of Stanislaus County, is the deadliest route in California, according to a new study conducted by the Dallas-based the Barber Law Firm. 

The California Highway Patrol’s Modesto area office would like to change that tragic distinction and is doing what it can to make the local stretch of highway safer.

The Barber Law analyzed data supplied by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data from 2018 to 2022 to determine which state routes had the highest average yearly fatalities.

Highway 99, which runs 424.8 miles in California, saw an average of 89 annual fatalities over the five-year period. Specifically, there were 445 deaths occurring from 396 crashes recorded on entire stretch of Highway 99 with the worst year for fatalities being in 2021 when 107 deaths occurred.

California Highway Patrol Officer Tom Olsen, a public information officer with the Modesto area, presented some startling statistics regarding Highway 99 crashes and deaths in Stanislaus County since 2022. The CHP reported 810 Highway 99 crashes in 2022 that claimed 10 lives, 917 crashes in 2023 with 11 fatalities and 362 crashes with four deaths so far this year.

Reducing those needless tragedies “really comes down to the bread and butter stuff,” Olsen said.

“The speeding, the DUI, the seatbelts, still become an issue.”

And, driver distractions like cell phone use.

“We go out there and do the best that we can enforcing and educating the public on the dangers of that,” said Olsen. “But a small percentage of that population continues to make those bad decisions behind the wheel.”

He estimated about a third of the fatalities on 99 in recent years involved pedestrians – mainly transients.

“We took one recently where someone was trying to walk their bike across the freeway on 99 and got hit.”

Two pedestrian fatalities occurred last week – one on Crows Landing Road and the other on northbound Highway 99 onramp at West Main Street in Turlock.

The local CHP handled five crash deaths two weeks ago all over Stanislaus County, noted Olsen. 

Two persons were killed in a head-on crash at Geer and Keyes roads, likely because of driver intoxication.

Another rule of the road that could prevent crashes and save lives which many drivers ignore is the one about slower traffic keeping right. 

According to Olsen, drivers can be cited for outpacing the other lanes of traffic while being in the far right lane if the freeway is posted, “Slower traffic keep right.”

“People don’t do that,” Olsen noted. “They just disobey a regulatory sign and that’s a specific violation the vehicle code.”

The problem is especially problematic when a slower driver impedes the flow of traffic by failing to move in the middle or slow lane.

“I’ve made stops on people who’ve impeded traffic before where they’re going too slow, 50 or so in the fast lane. I’ll make that stop because it’s dangerous and sometimes people will tell you, ‘Well, if they want to go around me, they can go around me.’ That’s the problem – we’re creating more of a hazardous situation instead of having that person at least be in that middle lane which would probably their safest option on certain parts of 99 in our area because of these budding hook onramps.”

Olsen is convinced that fewer fatal crashes would occur if people better managed their time and didn’t feel the need to race to their destination because they will be late.

“People tend to – when they are running behind – to take chances and risks they would not normally take. I think we’ve all been in that situation.”

He stresses that drivers maintain “high visual horizons,” looking far down the road and not just in front of the vehicle.

“That allows you to see brake lights way in advance and to distance yourself and prepare to stop your vehicle. We see a lot of people just come up last second and hit those brakes and we’re getting a lot of crashes.”

It also goes without saying that drivers should not look at their phones while driving.

Another thing that motorists need to be mindful of is that in the event of a minor crash, drivers should try to pull over to the right shoulder and not the center.

“We prefer the right shoulder. It’s just the best option for you from a safety standpoint. It may take you two to three lanes to get over but it’s the safer option not just for you but …we’re having possibly emergency personnel showing up, we have tow trucks, we have officers showing up so that right shoulder is going to be the best option for everybody.”

The CHP also reminds motorists about a relatively new law, the Move Over Law, that requires drivers to give a lane’s space when they approach an emergency vehicle with flashing lights if it’s safe to do so. The other option is to slow down.

All 50 States have “Move Over” laws to protect roadway workers, law enforcement officers, fire fighters, tow truck drivers and other first responders stopped on roads. Yet a third of the public is unaware of these laws.

Traffic-related incidents are the leading cause of death for on-duty law enforcement officers, fire, EMS, maintenance workers, and tow/recovery professionals. From 2018 and 2022, 154 CHP officers were injured, 14 severely, and two officers lost their lives on California roadsides. Many of these crashes were due to drivers under the influence.

“We encourage motorists, if they can, safely get over. We don’t want people to jerk their car over maybe thinking they’re going to get a ticket. That’s not what it’s intended for because then you can cause a crash and it barrels into us and we don’t want that.”

The courtesy should extend to drivers who are stranded on the side of the road.

The CHP also urges motorists to call 911 if they see a suspected drunk driver and provide dispatchers with a detailed description of the vehicle and its location.

Coming in second place of the deadliest highways is Highway 1 with an average of 57.6 fatalities. Between 2018 and 2022, there were 265 fatal crashes, which resulted in 288 deaths. 2022 was the worst year when 65 crashes resulted in 76 deaths.

The third deadliest is Highway 91 which saw an average of 29 fatalities between 2018 and 2022. With 38 fatalities caused by 37 accidents, 2021 was the deadliest year.

Further down on the list, State Route 60 takes fourth place with 28.4 average yearly fatalities, while State Route 4 closes the top five with 25.8 average deaths.