NORWALK — Caltrans is studying whether a two-mile stretch of the Santa Ana Freeway (I-5), where four people were killed and 14 others have been injured in crashes since mid-August, is exceptionally dangerous, an official said this week.
The California Department of Transportation will review accident records to try to identify any trends that could point to unsafe conditions on the southbound lanes from Florence Avenue to Norwalk Boulevard, said Dave Roper, Caltrans deputy district director.
One point of focus will be the shoulder along the span, which can be used as a fourth lane from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays. The three recent accidents occurred on that shoulder, during off hours, just north of Pioneer Boulevard.
The northbound lanes will not be studied because the recent accidents were all on the southbound side of the freeway.
Transportation officials already have surveyed the roadway for any obvious safety hazards.
"We really can't see anything at this stage of the game that would lead us to feel there's something there that has contributed to (the accidents)," Roper said this week.
Assemblyman Bob Epple (D-Norwalk), whose 63rd District includes the two-mile stretch of freeway that passes through the Norwalk area, requested the investigation.
"This stretch of freeway has become a dangerous and deadly corridor," Epple said. "We need to know if these accidents were simply tragic coincidences, or if they were preventable deficiencies in engineering."
"Part-time" lanes are fairly common in heavily congested areas, said Stephen Pang, a Caltrans senior transportation engineer.
Roper said Caltrans will try to determine whether the part-time lane contributed to any accidents because drivers had become used to driving on the shoulder.
As of last June, there was no indication of any problem with the two-mile stretch. The number of accidents occurring there was below the statewide average for similar roadways, Pang said.
About 91,000 cars a day travel over that southbound stretch of freeway, making it one of Southern California's busiest freeways, Pang said. Caltrans established the part-time lane in 1975 to alleviate traffic congestion. The agency never has recorded an exceptionally high number of accidents in the area, Pang said.
Signs indicating the hours the shoulder may be used as a lane are clearly posted.
"The motorist seems to understand it and seems to comply with it pretty well," Roper said. "It has not really posed an accident, safety problem to us."
But Roper said he will reserve final judgment until the review of accident reports is complete in four to six weeks.
The first accident occurred at about 3 a.m. on Aug. 12, shortly after two California Highway Patrol officers pulled over a speeding car. A pickup truck heading down the shoulder at about 60 m.p.h. plowed into the stopped cars, CHP Officer Dave Boyland said.
The officers and the two drivers suffered various injuries. The officers are still recuperating and have not returned to duty, Boyland said.
The driver of the pickup was arrested for investigation of drunken driving.
The second accident, at about 11 p.m. on Sept. 9, involved a pickup truck that was carrying 14 people. The driver of the truck had stopped on the shoulder to enable a 7-year-old boy to go to the bathroom, Boyland said.
Another pickup truck, driven by a Whittier man at about 60 m.p.h., crashed into the back of the stopped vehicle, killing three children and a pregnant woman. Ten other passengers were injured.
The Whittier man was arrested for investigation of drunken driving and manslaughter.
The third accident occurred last Friday. The driver of a large truck loaded with baby food told officers he was driving on the shoulder and about to exit at Pioneer Boulevard when he swerved to avoid another truck that had veered onto the shoulder.
His truck crashed in a tangle on the side of the freeway. No one was injured or cited in connection with the accident, Boyland said.