The first calls to the California Highway Patrol were logged at around 1:46 a.m. on Sunday — drivers heading westbound on the Foothill (210) Freeway near La Crescenta’s Pennsylvania Avenue exit saw headlights coming toward them.
A vehicle was driving on the wrong side of the freeway.
“When we hear of a wrong-way driver, our officers normally drop what they’re doing and try to locate the driver as soon as possible,” said Officer Ryan Bejar, a spokesman from CHP’s Altadena office, which responded to Sunday’s incident.
Although rare, wrong-way collisions are deadly. The California Department of Transportation found they incurred a fatality rate 12 times higher than all other accidents occurring on freeways.
On Sunday, CHP officers dispatched to the 210 relied on witness reports to try to locate the eastbound wrong-way driver and create a break in traffic before serious damage was done. But in a matter of minutes, they learned it was too late.
There’d been a collision in La Cañada Flintridge, just west of the Angeles Crest Highway exit, called in at 1:49 a.m., just three minutes after the original wrong-way driver call was logged.
When officers arrived on scene, they saw a dark-colored 2001 Honda Accord against the center median, facing northeast, that had sustained major front-end damage, according to CHP reports. Nearby, a 2017 red Kia Niro had sustained similar damage and was blocking the right lane, facing south.
The Kia was driven by Bruce Alvarenga, a 25-year-old Panorama City resident. Inside the Honda, soon after determined to be the wrong-way vehicle, was Kevork Khamisian, 32, of Sun Valley. Neither man survived the crash.
Bejar said disorientation can increase the devastation of such accidents. Oftentimes, alarmed wrong-way drivers pull over to their right to avoid traffic and end up in a carpool or fast lane, where Khamsian’s vehicle was found. Witness reports can also misidentify the direction of travel of the wrong-way vehicle, complicating efforts to locate the driver.
Sunday’s two fatalities in La Cañada are part of a grim statistic the California Department of Transportation has been working for years to minimize.
Since 2001, CHP has logged more than 1,500 wrong-way collisions statewide resulting in more than 270 fatalities and nearly 1,700 injuries. Most happen at night and are caused by drivers under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
A two-year Caltrans pilot program underway in Sacramento and San Diego is testing the effectiveness of lighted signs, signals and pavement markers that flash red when viewed from the wrong direction. Video cameras at offramps are triggered by wrong-way movement and immediately send alerts to traffic management centers manned by Caltrans and CHP employees.
Caltrans spokesman Mark Dinger said officials plan to release data collected from the pilot in a final report sometime in the fall of next year.
“Wrong-way collisions account for less than one-tenth of 1% of total highway accidents. (But) it’s the shocking nature of these accidents that make them so high profile,” Dinger said. “Our hope is there are better ways to prevent these kinds of accidents from occurring.”
The 2015 legislation that allowed for the funding of the pilot program was authored by state Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez (D-Pomona), whose 52nd District had experienced two wrong-way collisions in a six-day period in February 2014.
In those accidents, six people lost their lives while another three were critically injured. A former emergency medical technician, Rodriguez swiftly penned AB-162 requiring Caltrans to update its study on wrong-way collisions and investigate preventive technology.
“We must do more across California to update warning lights, signs and test new options for catching wrong-way drivers before they make a fatal mistake,” Rodriguez said in a statement Tuesday. “Every one of these incidents that is prevented makes our roads safer and saves lives.”