Fatalities turn focus back to Highway 49: Citizens push for barriers, increased enforcement (VIDEO)
February 7, 2017
Safety has long been a concern on Highway 49, but recent fatalities have brought the sometimes harrowing driving experience further into focus.
Since Dec. 15, there have been five fatalities involving three accidents on the corridor between north Auburn's Dry Creek Road and south Grass Valley's McKnight Way, which has no center divider. Two of the accidents involved vehicles crossing into oncoming traffic.
Devon Rantz lost his son, Joseph, a Bear River senior killed along with best friend Jude Douden in a head-on collision on Highway 49 near Dry Creek Road on Dec. 15.
"I think if there was a median in the middle it would prevent a lot of accidents that happen like the one with my son as far as head-on collisions and people crossing lanes," Rantz said.
Rantz is relatively new to the area. He moved here from Seattle with his wife, who's from Nevada County, three-and-a-half years ago.
"I didn't have as much experience of the dangers of Highway 49," he said. "My wife did. She graduated from Bear River and she had a friend killed on 49. It's a common story on that highway. I'm sure she's thought about it more than I have."
Rantz is one of many who've lost loved ones on Highway 49.
In 2005, Kelcie Armbruster lost her brother, Christopher Leighton, who had just graduated from Placer High. Leighton crossed over the double- yellow lines at Combie Road and was killed in a head-on collision.
Armbruster said she believes the speed on Highway 49 is as much of a factor than the absence of a barrier, if not more.
"I think speed is a huge factor on that road," she said. "I think (enhanced enforcement) helped tremendously, but I definitely think they need to do more. I don't know if it would be feasible, but maybe a center divide like they do on freeways would help."
IS IT GETTING WORSE?
While tragedies have been frequent in recent months, the overall trend since 2003 has been one of improvement. On Highway 49 from Grass Valley to the Placer County line, where more than 30,000 vehicles travel every day according to Caltrans, there have been 53 fatalities since 2003. That's an average of close to four per year.
Since a number of improvements in the mid-2000s, fatalities have dropped. From 2003 to 2006, there were 20 deaths, or an average of five per year. There were seven fatalities in 2005 and six more in 2006.
Since 2007, there have been 33 fatalities, or an average of just more than three per year. That number includes the anomalous 2012, when there were seven deaths. Outside of 2007, fatalities have exceeded four just once, when there were five in 2009.
"What we've had (recently) is a number of tragedies in a short time period, but there's nothing in the statistics that shows an increase in incidents," said Greg Tassone, the Grass Valley California Highway Patrol public information officer.
A number of improvements along the corridor have made things safer. Hold signals, like the one at Combie Road, delay a light from turning green for up to five seconds after the opposing light has turned red, preventing collisions between those pushing a red light and those getting a head start on the green.
"That's absolutely played a role in increasing safety," Caltrans District 3 spokesperson Liza Whitmore said.
Rumble strips, bumps in the road that alert drivers when they've drifted outside their lane, were also put in place. Installation was the result of community pressure, encouraging Caltrans to take action.
"That's why we love to hear from our constituents to know where there's room for improvement," Whitmore said.
The La Barr Meadows Road interchange was overhauled in 2010, drastically improving the flow of traffic.
Other measures included increased traffic enforcement, a daylight headlight mandate, signs imploring drivers to maintain safe speeds, widening the corridor to allow more space between oncoming traffic, and repaving Highway 49 two years ago with reflective markers.
Back in the mid 2000s, Highway 49 from Dry Creek Road to McKnight Way was given a safety corridor designation, making Caltrans and CHP eligible for various grants to improve safety and beef up enforcement.
Currently, the CHP patrols one to two officers on the corridor 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They also receive additional help from outside agencies and local officers who patrol on their time off.
The CHP also splits their shifts so there's patrol overlap.
"We try to overlap those shifts so we have more officers on patrol during those trouble times when we see increased traffic," Tassone said. "We know there's a direct correlation between enforcement and fatality collisions based on how many officers are on patrol."
There's a lot that can still be done, but funding is a major problem.
Arguably the most common argument is there should be a concrete barrier separating opposing traffic, but that's easier said than done.
"You can't just go in and put up the barrier and be done," said Dan Landon, the executive director of the Nevada County Transportation Commission. "The design number is five feet on either side of the barrier, plus the barrier itself. You're talking about an additional 15 feet of pavement to meet the design standard.
"The cost of the additional pavement poses a challenge right there. We're not flush with money to do the kind of maintenance we need."
He also added those living adjacent to Highway 49 would have to surrender property via eminent domain in order to make room for the widened road.
Michael Wilkie isn't buying it. The Grass Valley resident, who wrote a letter to the editor to The Union expressing his concerns about Highway 49 safety, cites similar constraints overcome on Highway 17 between Santa Clara and Santa Cruz, Highway 37 in Sonoma and Solano Counties and Highway 4 between Martinez and Benicia.
Despite space constraints similar to those on Highway 49, he said, all have put up concrete barriers.
"A center divide has been advised in the past and I attribute not getting such a simple fix to the incompetence of Caltrans and the Sacramento bureaucracy," he wrote.
Much of the mid-2000s improvements were the result of community feedback. Deborah Jones and her husband Bruce Jones were involved in a head-on collision on Dec. 19, 2003, on Highway 49 at Clivus Drive.
After another head-on collision two years later — one the Joneses weren't involved in — they were inspired to organize Citizens for Highway 49 Safety. A group of more than 300 local residents showed up at Bear River High School in 2006 to express their concerns and offer potential solutions, at least partially leading to the safety measures enacted in the years following.
In the wake of the most recent tragedies, the citizens group is planning another meeting for 7 p.m. on March 22 in the Bear River multipurpose room.
Topics Jones would like discussed include safety barriers, more CHP enforcement, posts that prevent cars from crossing over the divider, and various other incremental safety precautions.
"I think real change is going to come from public pressure for something to be done," Deborah Jones said. "People don't seek us out until a fatality occurs. We've been working on this for 10 years."
Jolie Allen, 11, is a sixth grader at the Nevada City School for the arts. She's working on her Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM) project, building a website fix49.org with her brother Silas Allen to gain signatures to present to the March 22 Citizens for Highway 49 Safety meeting. The goal is to raise awareness for the increased need for safety improvements.
"This road is just a blood alley," said Scott Allen, Jolie's father. "It's horrible."
She'll start with a presentation on Feb. 16 to the Nevada Union High School leadership class hoping to start a wave of signatures to present in March.
"Each class member, the hope is, they'll get people to sign this petition to get a median barrier put in," said Scott Allen, Jolie's father. "Without a barrier, you take your life into your hands every time you drive that highway."
The goal is to collect between 5,000 and 10,000 signatures.
"It's all about making enough noise to make our politicians listen," Scott Allen said. "I think if you asked enough people and asked them what their No. 1 priority is, it's that darn highway."
To contact Staff Writer Stephen Roberson, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4236.