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What's Safer? Highway 99 Or Highway 70?

State Highway 99 in Chico, California, as viewed facing north from the bridge where East Park Avenue becomes Skyway.

What’s safer, Highway 99 or 70?

That’s a simple enough question, right? Or at least it seems so.

Mainly flat, and roughly parallel, at least for about 60 miles through the valley, it was thought this would be easy to answer.

“That’s not as easy as you would think,” said Darryl Chambers, a transportation engineer with Caltrans’ Division of Traffic Safety. While voluminous accident and crash data statistics are maintained by federal and state agencies, Chambers insists much of it comes down to perception. And the most important factors don’t always show up in the stats.

“There are three components that are involved in this equation: you have the driver, you have the vehicle and you have the roadway. I, as an engineer, only have direct influence over the roadway itself,” Chambers added.

Getting answers wasn’t easy. While helpful with other numbers, the California Highway Patrol declined to provide data about crashes on Highway 70.

Congressman Doug LaMalfa, however, said roadway fatalities on 70 have doubled over the past decade. Butte County Supervisor Bill Connelly, who is pushing the widening of some two-lane segments, recently told KRCR-TV that nine people have lost their lives along a segment of 70 south of Oroville so far this year.

Federal, state, and insurance industry experts all declined to provide a straight answer to which highway is intrinsically safer.

For some drivers, interstate highways, with their higher speeds and heavy truck traffic, can seem very intimidating — if not outright dangerous. According to Doug Hecox, spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, the statistics say otherwise.

“The fatality rates on interstates, where traffic is moving faster, the fatality rate is actually lower than it is on a lot of its smaller and rural counterparts,” Hecox said.

And roads and road conditions are constantly changing. Safety improvements, including rumble strips, new or improved guardrails, the removal of visual obstacles, even new pavement, lighting or reflectors all make differences, and those changes make older statistics less and less instructive.

According to statistics compiled by the California Highway Patrol, in 2015 and 2016 there were 1,630 injury accidents along Interstate 5, compared to 2,067 along Highway 99 — advantage: I-5.

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Over the same period, 43 people were killed on I-5, compared to 40 on 99. That almost sounds like a wash, but is it? Hardly.

That’s because I-5 carries a lot more traffic, according to Caltrans.

Compare traffic at the Glenn/Colusa county line on I-5 with Highway 99 at the Butte/Sutter county line: it’s no contest. I-5 moves 87 percent more traffic, making the accident rate — the number of crashes divided by the amount of traffic — much lower. And for the record, on an average day in 2015, about 21 percent fewer drivers crossed the Yuba/Butte County line on Highway 70, than crossed the Sutter/Butte County line on 99.

Chuck Farmer is vice president for research and statistical services at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

“If you’re just trying to avoid the serious crashes, especially the ones where you’re likely to die, then you definitely want to go with the interstate as far as you can, because you tend to see, well definitely the death rate on interstates is less than half of what you see on other roads,” Farmer said.

Among the biggest dangers for drivers using rural highways is passing.

“They get stuck behind somebody that’s slow and since there’s no passing lane, they get a little impatient and they try to take that risk,” said Officer Rafael Cervantes with the California Highway Patrol’s Valley Division.

“A lot of times it’s safe to do so, but every once in a while you’ll get to that person where, they didn’t judge the distance of the oncoming vehicle and they could cause someone to take drastic action to avoid an accident and therefore cause an accident,” he added.

Despite road improvement projects, that hazard isn’t going anywhere.

“Traffic is simply worse today,” Hecox said. “Everywhere you go, there’s more, more people competing for a relatively finite amount of space.”

At the same time, the nation’s highways are better designed and better engineered for safety than ever before. Vehicles are also safer than ever. According to Darryl Chambers, the Caltrans engineer, the figures only go so far.

“When you look at just statistics, it doesn’t give you the whole story, you have to look at what’s behind the statistics,” he said. “What caused the driver to run off the road? Why was the driver distracted? Things like that.”

Rather than rating the safety of specific routes, experts instead say the biggest determinant is driver behavior and other externalities. Things like being tired, distracted, or impaired, poor visibility, following too closely or driving too fast. 

And those issues can pop up regardless of route number.

Hecox said that while stats can’t answer every question, some crash data may be more important than the route.

“Regardless of state and regardless of time zone, that 4 to 6 in the morning seems to be a very dangerous time of day, and I’m not sure exactly why,” he said.

So, how can one minimize the likelihood of having a collision? There’s no secret sauce. The best advice, according to the IIHS’ Farmer is probably nothing you haven’t heard since before you received your very first license.

“It’s basically just hear the voice of your mother, saying, ‘Slow down, and don’t drive when its foggy or pouring rain and always know where you’re going and yes, pay attention.’”

According to online mapping software, here’s how long it takes to get from Redding City Hall to the Capitol building in Sacramento via…. I-5: 161 miles, two hours, 34 minutes I-5 and State Route 99: 157 miles, two hours, 35 minutes I-5 and State Routes 99/149/70: 162 miles, two hours, 28 minutes