To John Gajdos, the intersection of Highway 101 and Wellsona Road isn’t just a piece of road — it’s where his family’s life changed forever.
Tracy Hunter-Gajdos, Gajdos’ wife of 17 years, was driving across the road in her SUV in September when she pulled out in front of a pickup truck towing a trailer.
The crash broke Hunter-Gajdos’ pelvis and ribs, and it caused severe head trauma, leaving her with brain injuries that could require years of recovery.
Hunter-Gajdos’ crash was one of 16 at the intersection since 2012, 12 of which have resulted in injuries or fatalities, according to CHP data. Like Hunter-Gajdos’, many of the crashes involved drivers crossing the road too soon, leaving them exposed to traffic traveling about 65 mph.
The Gajdos family is very familiar with the intersection. They live on Monterey Road, just across the highway from the San Paso Truck Stop. Hunter-Gajdos crossed the road countless times throughout her life; her family used to run cattle on what is now Highway 101.
That’s what makes the collision so puzzling to Gajdos, who now must find ways to reassure the couple’s two teenage daughters. He has to drive about two hours to visit Hunter-Gajdos at her rehabilitation facility in Gilroy — a stark change for two people who met in fifth grade and have never spent this much time apart.
“We all knew the dangers of that intersection,” he said.
Calls for change
Over the years, residents have pushed for changes at the intersection, where a truck stop and an RV park attract slower-moving vehicles and give drivers additional reasons to cross in front of highway traffic.
Area drivers’ concerns have attracted attention after more serious crashes, such as a collision on Christmas Eve in 2014 involving a semitruck and a minivan that killed four people. Since 2012, six people have been killed in crashes at the intersection.
Most recently, a group of residents created a Change.org petition to push for the creation of an overpass after a big rig toting carrots crashed into a car at the nearby intersection of Highway 101 and Exline Road.
I just sit here and watch people go flying down that road all day.
Tom McDonald, manager of the San Paso Truck Stop
Tom McDonald, manager of the San Paso Truck Stop, said drivers constantly travel through the intersection at high speeds. He suggested putting a warning sign across the highway or setting up a decommissioned CHP car near the road to slow people down.
“I just sit here and watch people go flying down that road all day,” McDonald said.
Gajdos suggested reducing the speed limit in that area or having an officer patrol the intersection.
“Something has to be done,” he said. “It’s just ridiculous.”
No easy solutions
But Caltrans representatives, traffic engineers and local officials say solutions aren’t as clear-cut as they might seem.
Anurag Pande, an associate professor at Cal Poly’s College of Engineering, said the setup of the intersection and the nature of Highway 101 make quick, substantial fixes nearly impossible.
Creating consistent roadways and avoiding surprises that might trip up drivers is crucial to preventing crashes, Pande said.
“Safety is really related to the driver expecting something and then getting the same thing,” he said.
At this spot, Highway 101 is no longer a freeway, which means intersections replace overpasses and on- and off-ramps.
But to drivers, the road appears clear and open and no different from the adjacent stretches to the north and south. This conditions drivers to expect they will be able to maintain a consistent, fast rate of speed, Pande said.
“All of that design kind of encourages you’ll be driving at a high speed,” he said.
Installing a stoplight or changing the speed limit at the intersection might do more harm than good, Pande said, because of drivers’ expectations.
As for building an overpass, Ron De Carli, executive director of the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments, said “the project is needed,” but building such a structure would cost about $30 million, money San Luis Obispo County doesn’t have.
De Carli said this is especially true after failing to pass Measure J, the countywide sales tax measure that would have generated money for road and infrastructure improvements. And outside funding isn’t exactly plentiful, De Carli noted.
“The faucet to provide this money at the state and federal level is largely being turned off,” he said.
Plus, the Wellsona intersection isn’t the highest priority for San Luis Obispo County roadway fixes. Other projects, including those to alleviate traffic congestion on Highway 101 near Pismo Beach and on Highway 227 near San Luis Obispo, are much closer toward the top of the list of local needs, De Carli said. He estimated an average of 70,000 vehicles per day drive past Pismo Beach, while 15,000 travel through the Wellsona intersection.
“It isn’t a matter of setting priorities,” De Carli said. “There is no money.”
Modest upgrades planned
Although major improvements aren’t immediately in the works, Caltrans is planning some upgrades it says it hopes will reduce the frequency of crashes at the intersection.
Caltrans District 5 spokesman Jim Shivers wrote in an email that the agency plans to make improvements to the intersection by the end of 2016 or early 2017, including roadside lights, truck-crossing signs with flashing beacons and redone striping in a 2-mile area on both sides of the road.
The faucet to provide this money at the state and federal level is largely being turned off.
Ron De Carli, SLOCOG executive director on the lack of funds for highway improvements
Outgoing county Supervisor Frank Mecham, who said he’s received many calls from constituents concerned about the intersection, pushed Caltrans to make such improvements at an August SLOCOG meeting.
“I’ve been after them for well over a year,” Mecham said.
Even so, Shivers said Caltrans “maintains this location remains safe,” as long as drivers follow the speed limit, pay attention to signs and “refrain from substances that may impair the decisions they make while driving.”
“This intersection is traversed safely by thousands of people every day without incident,” he said.
CHP Officer John Ybarra said most of the crashes at the Wellsona intersection occurred because of violations related to yielding to traffic when crossing an intersection or making a left-hand turn.
Only two of the 16 total crashes at the intersection since 2012 involved drivers under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
The minivan driver who crashed into a semitruck on Christmas Eve 2014 was under the influence of methamphetamine and marijuana, although it was the truck driver who was found to have been at fault. He’s facing vehicular manslaughter charges and is expected to go to trial in January.
Coroner’s tests on a Visalia driver who was killed in a crash at the intersection in September showed the man was under the influence of alcohol, Ybarra said.
“They have to be prudent as to the way they drive,” he said. “No one’s exempt from the laws of physics.”
But those sentiments are of little comfort to people such as Gajdos, whose wife has made progress since her crash but still relies on a feeding tube and requires help from staff at her facility for basic functions. He visits her on weekends and said doctors are unsure of her prognosis, although they’re pleased her condition hasn’t regressed.
“She’s trying,” Gajdos said. “She’s fighting.”
Cases like Hunter-Gajdos’ make it difficult for officials to explain their decisions — which by necessity must be based on costs and data — when it’s natural to view human lives as more valuable, said Pande, the Cal Poly professor.
“How do you make a data-driven decision when someone loses a life?” he asked.