From the Roadshow archives: Highway 85 tragedy that spurred safety changes across California

The death of Carol Klamm was the first in a series of accidents in the late 1990s that changed safeguards on the state’s highways

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Carol Klamm’s death was the first in a series of fatal accidents on Highway 85 in the late 1990s that led to California requiring median barriers on all state highways. This is the saddest story Mr. Roadshow has ever covered, but it is also the most rewarding because necessary safety changes were implemented. This story first appeared on March 2, 1996.

Nobody will ever know if Carol Klamm would have survived if there had been a median barrier on Highway 85 on Wednesday.

However, when traffic officials decided against erecting a metal railing or concrete wall down the center of the six-lane highway, some feared head-on collisions like the one that killed the 35-year-old San Jose mother of two. Local officials, horrified witnesses, and concerned commuters are now urging the state to build a divider to prevent future tragedies.

“This kind of tragedy makes my blood boil,” said Pat Dando, a member of the San Jose City Council whose district includes the stretch of highway north of the Almaden Expressway where the accident occurred. “A single death is too many. I don’t want to be the victim of a second or third fatality.”

Klamm is the first person killed by a car crossing the dirt median on the freeway since it opened in late 1994. She died moments after a car driven by Jorge Cazarez Romero, 28, of Gilroy, spun out of control while racing southbound at speeds approaching 100 mph.

Witnesses say Romero was following another car carrying his wife around 2 p.m. and weaving in and out of all three lanes when he collided with Brian Pottie of Cupertino. Romero’s white 1979 Ford Ranchero careened into the northbound lanes, colliding with Klamm’s 1995 Nissan Maxima.

“I felt a bump from behind and never saw him,” said Pottie. “All he did was shoot across the median.” There was nothing that could stop him.”

The Highway 85 median is 46 feet wide and runs nearly 13 miles north of Santa Teresa Boulevard to the McClellan Road overpass in Cupertino.

A barrier would have been necessary if this median had been a few feet narrower. According to state traffic engineers, a barrier is required only when the median is less than 44 feet wide or has a history of three accidents within a mile or so.

On roads with medians of 44 feet or more, cars stop in the median “98 percent of the time,” according to Caltrans spokesman Jeff Weiss. “That’s what our studies show.”

Weiss stated that Caltrans will consider whether a center divider should be installed along 85.

Some issues are caused by medial barriers. While they are effective at reducing head-on collisions, safety studies show that they frequently result in an increase in accidents as cars are thrown out of the median and back into traffic. While deaths on Monterey Highway and Highway 17 decreased after barriers were installed, accidents more than doubled.

In this case, CHP officers believe that a median barrier would not have kept Romero’s speeding car out of the northbound lanes. He was going so fast that if he hit a barrier, he might have been thrown into the northbound lanes.

“With the speed of the vehicle and the angle at which he came across the (median), he could just as easily have landed on top of her,” Officer John Maxfield said.

According to the CHP, two or three vehicles have crossed the median into oncoming traffic on Interstate 85. Officials are investigating the problem but will not have more information until next week.

Local officials and motorists are still concerned about more terrible accidents.

“I’m outraged,” said Barbara Koppel, a former Cupertino City Councilwoman who advocated for a median barrier before the new highway opened in 1994. “Why is it that it takes death to get people’s attention?”

Mike Evanhoe, director of the Santa Clara County Congestion Management Program and former executive director of the California Transportation Commission, added:

“I’m a firm believer in median barriers.” People driving in one direction on a freeway don’t expect to see another car shoot across the center of the road from the opposite direction.”

Another source of concern for commuters is the high rate of speed at which cars travel on Highway 85, which runs almost straight from Cupertino to South San Jose. Cars traveling at the speed limit are easily passed by drivers traveling at 75 mph or higher.

“Cars travel so fast out there,” said Lee Kopp, who lives near the accident site. “When I first saw the highway, my first thought was, ‘My God, there are no barriers.'” “Someone is going to get hit.”

Klamm apparently saw the speeding car approaching her, judging by the skid marks on her brakes. However, the force of the collision flipped her car, which was then hit by a Chevrolet pickup truck also traveling northbound. Klamm’s car ended up upside down on the shoulder, next to a wooden cross, flowers, and a bouquet of purple and green balloons.

According to the Department of Motor Vehicles, Romero does not have a driver’s license and was charged with speeding and driving without a license two years ago. He is being treated at Valley Medical Center in critical condition.

According to the CHP, Romero could face felony drunken driving and gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated charges.

Geary Klamm, Klamm’s husband, referred all questions to an attorney.

Pottie stood in the median with another driver, consoling Romero’s wife, after the accident, as nearly a dozen emergency vehicles descended on the scene. However, he stated that his thoughts wandered to 1994 news accounts that raised concerns about the lack of an 85 divider.

“Now I understand why people were concerned,” he explained.

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