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Despite fatal accident, roads safe, state agency says

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Posted: Thursday, January 11, 2001 10:00 pm

Safety experts throughout California have long campaigned for a concrete barrier to separate traffic flowing in opposite directions along busy Interstate 5.

On Thursday, no law enforcement officer was willing to deny that such a barrier might have prevented Wednesday’s deadly head-on collision near Lodi.

The victims killed have been identified by the San Joaquin County Coroner’s Office as Juan Lopez, 30, Jose Magana-Ramirez, 20, Juan Zarata-Lopez, 39, and Jorge Magana-Ramirez, 17, all of Sacramento.

The relationship of the four men to one another had not been determined by investigators at press time.

All the men died from the impact of the collision late Wednesday morning when their pickup truck, which was heading north, crossed the grassy median on Interstate 5, just south of Highway 12, and slammed into an oncoming big rig.

They were returning from a landscaping job in Stockton, according to the county sheriff’s department.

The big rig driver, Curchetan Johal, 31, of Antelope, was treated for minor injuries and released from Lodi Memorial Hospital on Wednesday night.

The cause of the accident, which occurred at 11:57 a.m., is still under investigation by the California Highway Patrol.

“Nothing will be done for at least a couple of more days,” CHP spokesman Officer Derek Brackett said.

He refused to speculate on the cause of the accident that at least one eyewitness claims was caused when the pickup hydroplaned in standing water on the interstate.

But discussions of installing a concrete barrier between southbound and northbound lanes of Interstate 5 has once again moved to the forefront. A grassy 60-foot strip now makes up the road’s median.

However, a California Department of Transportation spokesman said the state agency won’t place any type of wall along that strip any time soon.

“There’s never been discussion of putting one in that area,” Robert Spradling said. “The accident rate is very low there. Two in the last four years.”

However, installing a barrier along Interstate 5 from Eight Mile Road to the Swain Road over-crossing has been discussed, he said. Highway 99 from Kettleman Lane north has a concrete barrier, “but it (the median) is much narrower there than on Interstate 5,” Spradling said.

“The median (where the accident occurred) is sufficiently wide enough to protect vehicles on both sides. It is a safe area. The one factor we can’t build in on those safety checks is the driver.”

Spradling would not comment directly on Wednesday’s accident since it is still under investigation.

However, “Caltrans is always concerned whenever there is an accident,” Spradling said. “When this accident report is completed, we review it and look at any of the factors of the accident.”

Wednesday’s accident was San Joaquin County’s fourth fatal crash this year, raising to seven the number of people killed on local roadways since Jan. 1.

While Caltrans crews and CHP officers were busy Thursday cleaning up the mess left by the Interstate 5 accident, Lodi public safety crews had their hands full scrambling to deal with uprooted trees as well as responding to a handful of fender-benders.

Public Works Director Richard Prima said the department responded to at least two reports of trees which had fallen into city streets.

There was no significant flooding in any areas of the city with slow drainage, he said.

“Our system works really well.”

The storm dumped a combined 1.17 inches of rain in the 48-hour period ending at 5 p.m. Thursday, bringing the season’s rainfall total to 5.73 inches, according to the city’s fire department, which keeps weather statistics.

Rainfall seasons are calculated from July 1 to June 30. While it was pummeling nearby Stockton and Tracy, the year’s first major storm spared the city of Lodi on both Wednesday and Thursday.

“We’ve had a few accidents, but nothing real serious. It’s been pretty routine, nothing earth-shattering,” Lodi Police Lt. J.P. Badel said.

Additionally, emergency calls to the Lodi Fire Department were few despite the strong winds and periodically torrential rains.

“We had one car accident (on Thursday), and, as far as I know, it wasn’t related to the weather,” said Verne Person, a fire department spokesman. “(Wednesday) was a pretty quiet night around here.”

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