Editor's note: Fifteen years ago, after a series of fatal accidents on Highway 85, California adopted a new policy that added median barriers to highways throughout the state, greatly increasing safety on the road. Here is the July 8, 1997, story reporting that development.

Prompted by a series of fatal accidents on Highway 85 in Santa Clara County, the state announced Monday it will spend $110 million to install median barriers on 400 miles of freeways throughout California.

The five-year project will add barriers on high-volume freeways with medians up to 75 feet wide -- nearly doubling the previous standard, which called for guardrails or concrete barriers only if a median was less than 46 feet wide or if it had a high rate of cross-over accidents.

Seven people were killed on Highway 85 within a 12-month period in 1996 and 1997 when cars careened out of control, crossing over a narrow dirt median and into opposing lanes of traffic. State officials, facing public outcry over the deaths, agreed to review their policy for installing median barriers. This announcement was a result of that review.

"Something good is coming out of this for California, " said Assemblyman Jim Cunneen, R-Campbell, who led the effort to install a barrier on the South Bay freeway and campaigned to re-examine state policy.

"There's nothing we can do to bring back the lives that were lost, " he said. "But at least we know the tragedy on Highway 85 will not happen again."


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Bay Area freeways that will get new barriers under the new policy include Highway 101 near Highway 152 outside of Gilroy and small stretches of Highway 87 near Park Avenue and Highway 85 near Moffett Boulevard. Stretches of Highway 1 in San Mateo County, Highway 4 in Contra Costa County and Highway 13 in Alameda County also will have safety upgrades in the median.

California Department of Transportation officials said there has been an average of 35 deaths a year due to cross-median accidents in the past five years. They expect to cut that figure in half with the new standards. It was not known immediately whether the new policy will affect two locations where fatal cross-over accidents occurred during the recent holiday weekend. Six people were killed on Interstate 5 near Santa Nella, and two more motorists died on Highway 101 near Prunedale.

The new policy affects freeways carrying 63,000 or more vehicles a day. By way of example, more than 100,000 vehicles use Highway 85 every day.

"The one-size-fits-all standard was an approach that didn't work, " Cunneen said. "This change will better protect suburban areas."

Even before Highway 85 opened in 1994, motorists and local officials expressed concern over the lack of a barrier. Caltrans, however, insisted that the freeway was safe and that most cars would stop in the 46-foot dirt median without crossing into oncoming traffic.

But the new freeway has become a speedway, with motorists matter-of-factly racing along at 75 miles an hour. The Highway Patrol initiated a crackdown, using radar and more patrols in attempts to slow drivers. More than 200 tickets were issued in one day during the crackdown.

But from February to late summer in 1996, six people were killed in cross-over accidents. The state then agreed to erect a barrier on the 12 miles of unprotected freeway, but an 11-year girl died in February before the final few miles of construction were completed. At least two lawsuits have been filed against the state, seeking $40 million over deaths that occurred on Highway 85 before the barriers were installed. It cost about $2 million to install a guardrail on 14 miles of Highway 85.

Caltrans Director James van Loben Sels said in a news release that the 75-foot standard "would reduce the severity of accidents while not significantly increasing the total number of accidents caused by vehicles striking the barrier."

Among those killed on Highway 85 before a median barrier was installed:

Feb. 28, 1996: Carol Klamm of San Jose was killed when a speeding southbound car careened through the dirt median and struck Klamm's vehicle head-on north of Almaden Expressway.

May 12, 1996: Elizabeth Polyniak of San Jose was killed when her car sideswiped another northbound car and darted through the median and across southbound lanes before rolling down an embankment.

July 25, 1996: A northbound Toyota pickup veered into southbound traffic south of Saratoga Avenue and hit a southbound car head-on, killing Donald Garrett, the driver of the pickup, and Alma Ribbs, a passenger in the second car. Ribbs was seven months pregnant with twins, who were delivered by emergency surgery but died a few days later.

Feb. 2, 1997: Eleven-year-old Jessica Zhao died after her mother's car was sideswiped, causing her to lose control and crash into an oncoming car south of Interstate 280.

Contact Gary Richards at 408-920-5335.