Citizens for Highway 49 Safety gathers to brainstorm, find safety solutions | TheUnion.com

Citizens for Highway 49 Safety gathers to brainstorm, find safety solutions

KNOW & GO

Who: Citizens for Highway 49 Safety

What: Informative meeting to find ways the make Highway 49 safer

When: Wednesday, 7-9 p.m.

Where: Bear River High School multipurpose room

Info: CitizensForHighway49Safety.com

Bruce and Deborah Jones don't point fingers at the California Highway Patrol or Caltrans for not doing enough when it comes to Highway 49 safety. In fact, the two cherish the relationship they've built with both organizations.

When community members meet at Bear River's multipurpose room from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday for a meeting hosted by Citizens for Highway 49 Safety, the objective is to brainstorm and not to assign blame for a growing number of car crashes on the main thoroughfare into western Nevada County.

The question is how can the CHP, Caltrans and the members of the community work together to make the Highway 49 corridor from Grass Valley to Auburn safer?

The Joneses have been on a mission to increase Highway 49 safety since a pair of incidents more than a decade ago.

"It's a cooperative relationship that we have and that we've worked on for 10 years," Bruce Jones said. "All the organizations together have worked on this. They gave us a voice, basically. They allowed us to come in and speak with them … That's the best part of this. They are as interested in this project as we are."

The couple was involved in a head-on collision on Dec. 19, 2003 on Highway 49. Two years later, another head-on collision they weren't involved in forced them into action. They created a group focused on making the dangerous corridor safer. 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.

The meeting, and the group as a whole, developed a 10-year plan. That plan, which has since been exhausted, created a host of improvements that has significantly lowered the fatality rate along the corridor.

Still, three recent accidents on Highway 49 resulting in five deaths have heightened the focus on safety.

"When we have a rash of deaths like we've had, the public wants answers," Bruce Jones said. "And some of them do get excited. As a group, we felt like, 'Let's have another meeting and air this stuff out and see if there is any other information that we're missing.'"

In addition to community groups, CHP Commander George Steffenson, CHP Public Information Officer Greg Tassone, Caltrans Safety Investigator Darryl Chambers and Caltrans Public Information Officer Liza Whitmore will all be on hand for presentations and question-and-answer availability. Citizens for Highway 49 Safety members Chet Krage and Brad Weston, and Nevada County District 2 Supervisor Ed Scofield also plan to attend.

Whitmore said the community's involvement is vital for such a major project.

"It's extremely important to engage the community, get feedback and educate them on possible options," Whitmore said. "It's a valuable opportunity."

WHAT'S NEXT?

The Citizens for Highway 49 Safety's 10-year plan produced many improvements, including rumble strips and a major restructuring of the La Barr Meadows Road interchange.

Now it's time for the next phase and there are a lot of ideas, many of which are quite expensive.

Chambers noted at a special meeting of the Nevada County Transportation Commission and SR 49 Stakeholders Committee two weeks ago a center divider — a common desire within the community — would cost about $100 million and create a whole new set of problems.

"I would say from a resource standpoint, incremental improvements are the reality," he said.

"Ideally, we would love to have a center divider from Dry Creek (Road in North Auburn) all the way up to McKnight (Way in Grass Valley)," Deborah Jones said. "But when you see the statistics of how many driveways there are on the highway, it creates a problem."

Both Deborah and Bruce Jones have higher priorities they believe are more realistic.

"I think funding for accelerator lanes is huge, and we need more funding for CHP."

CHP ROLE ON PATROL

The CHP sometimes conducts special enforcement days, where extra officers beef up patrol in certain areas.

These are not the result of grants or overtime, just the way the shift schedule rotation affords extra officers on particular days, CHP officials said. Recently, there have been one or two days where more than five officers — as opposed to the standard one or two — enhanced enforcement of speed limits.

Asked if the CHP had changed its approach over the past six weeks, Tassone said yes and no.

"These days are semi-regular but they're not prescheduled," he said. "It had been several months since the last one. So it is a change in that we hadn't done one in several months and finally had a chance to do one … But it is something we do several times a year."

Tassone said extra patrol units impact the habits of those who are stopped, but it also changes the culture in the area.

"We notice the more patrol units we have in a particular area, over time, the collisions in that area will tend to drop."

CHP does get grants for special purpose assignments. April is Distracted Driver Awareness Month nationally, so there will be extra funds on hand that will be used in part for extra patrols on Highway 49.

IS 49 ANY SAFER?

Fatalities are down on Highway 49 in comparison to recent years, but car improvements — things like frame design, crumple zones, collision avoidance systems and air bags — have made newer cars safer, helping to lower national fatality rates.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Highway Loss Data Institute, there were 59,495 motor vehicle deaths nationally in 2005. That number dropped to 44,950 in 2014. With population increase, the rate of crash deaths per 100,000 in 2015 was about half what it was 40 years ago.

While deaths on Highway 49 are decreasing, accidents are actually on the rise.

According to statistics provided by the CHP, there were 89 collisions on Highway 49, in Nevada County and Placer County combined, in 2007. At the end of 2016, there were 166, with nearly 125 of them in Nevada County.

"To use the fatality rate as the indicator of whether a highway is safe, to me the best metric is traffic accidents," said Scott Allen, who along with daughter Jolie Allen has been involved with http://www.fix49.org, a website devoted to creating awareness about the need to improve the highway's safety.

To contact Staff Writer Stephen Roberson, email sroberson@theunion.com or call 530-477-4236.