Over the Hill

This deadly Highway 101 intersection needs a fix now

The intersection of Wellsona Road and Highway 101 has been the site of multiple deadly collisions, including one that killed a Visalia man on Sept. 30.
The intersection of Wellsona Road and Highway 101 has been the site of multiple deadly collisions, including one that killed a Visalia man on Sept. 30.

A 7-mile section of Highway 101 just north of Paso Robles took another life last Friday night. Van Hugh Needham, 50, of Visalia was killed in a collision at the intersection of Highway 101 and Wellsona Road.

You may wonder how there can be a deadly collision at an intersection on Highway 101. California freeways have overpasses and underpasses. They don’t have intersections.

Well, that’s the problem. Signs just north of Paso Robles say “End freeway” and “Cross traffic ahead next 7 miles.” The state calls that 7-mile section of 101 an “expressway.”

I call it a “death strip.” It has no overpasses or underpasses. What it has are three uncontrolled intersections or crossroads.

But it looks like a freeway. It has two northbound lanes and two southbound lanes. They are separated by a center divider strip. And I’d bet most people who drive on it still travel at freeway speeds. I think I do. Maybe I’m lucky to be alive.

Last Friday night about 8:40 p.m., the late Van Hugh Needham drove on Wellsona Road and into the intersection with Highway 101. At the same time Alejo Alegre, 61, of Chualar drove on Highway 101 and into the same intersection. The two cars collided.

There were two people in each car. Needham died right there. The other three people were taken to hospitals for treatment of various injuries. This was just the latest of several collisions on the “death strip.”

On Sept. 9, a Paso Robles woman was seriously injured when her vehicle and a pickup collided at that same Wellsona Road/Highway 101 intersection. Also, in June, a San Luis Obispo woman was killed in a crash at the same spot. And you probably remember that four people were killed there on Christmas Eve in 2014. Their car collided with a truck.

But the tragedies don’t just happen at the Wellsona intersection. In August 2015, a woman from rural Templeton was killed as she pulled out from Monterey Road onto Highway 101. A semitrailer hit her car.

I’ve heard that the state plans to improve Highway 101 at San Miguel, just beyond the northern end of the “death strip.” A new 10th Street underpass is to be built so southbound drivers can merge from the righthand side of the freeway. Presently, they merge from the left side. The San Miguel Community Plan says that project is due to be completed by 2017. We’ll see. I was, however, glad to hear about it.

But the state should also promptly start converting our 7 deadly expressway miles to safer, full freeway status. For many people, driving on those 7 miles is literally a death-defying act.

In the meantime, the state should at least install traffic signal lights at the Wellsona intersection.

Phil Dirkx’s column is special to The Tribune. He has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades, and his column appears here every week. Reach Dirkx at 805-238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.