Culture, median, speed focus of transportation commission special meeting on Highway 49 | TheUnion.com

Culture, median, speed focus of transportation commission special meeting on Highway 49

Chet Krage works with Citizens for Highway 49 Safety, which was founded more than a decade ago by Bruce and Deborah Jones after the couple was in a head-on collision on Highway 49.

The push for more safety measures on the Highway 49 corridor continued on Thursday with a special meeting of the Nevada County Transportation Commission and SR 49 Stakeholders Committee at the California Highway Patrol's Grass Valley offices.

Community members and various organizations, including the Citizens for Highway 49 Safety, shared information and exchanged thoughts on the ongoing concerns over the Highway 49 corridor between McKnight Way and the Bear River, which is the Nevada/Placer County line.

Despite reduced numbers in accidents and fatalities in the decade since the Citizens for Highway 49 Safety's creation, three recent collisions resulting in five deaths have brought the topic into sharper focus.

STATISTICS

In 2016, there were 124 collisions along the corridor.

There were 48 accidents causing injury, three head-on collisions and no fatalities (the December crash that killed Bear River seniors Jude Douden and Joseph Rantz occurred in Placer County, outside the Grass Valley CHP's jurisdiction).

Over the past three years, there have been 291 collisions, two of them fatal.

Compare that to a decade ago, when the three-year stretch between 2004 and 2006 saw 314 crashes and nine fatalities.

TOO FAST

The two biggest concerns, arguably, from community members is speed enforcement and the lack of a center median.

In 2016, 49 of the 124 collisions were found to be the result of speeding (40 percent). The numbers were similar in 2015 (37 percent) and 2014 (35 percent).

The CHP wrote 393 tickets last year, an average of just more than one a day, 170 of them for speeding.

"I'm hopeful we'll see increased enforcement," Nevada County Transportation Commission Executive Director Dan Landon said.

Bruce Jones, who started Citizens for Highway 49 Safety along with wife Deborah more than a decade ago after the two were injured in a 2003 head-on collision on Highway 49, said the CHP's presence is just as important as the citations written.

"It's important," said Bruce Jones. "It slows traffic down, just being out there."

CHP Commander George Steffenson addressed enforcement, saying he'd been given the green light for overtime to increase patrol on the corridor. He doesn't have any numbers yet pertaining to how many more patrol hours he'll have to work with.

"I'm going to try to get as much as I can," Steffenson said. "I can make you this promise: My officers will be out there every day … I know my bosses are trying to get us more bodies, too."

CENTER MEDIAN

A center median would reduce head-on collisions and limit the damage in other crashes, but it's not a perfect solution.

"Barriers can help, but they also bring with them a new set of problems," Caltrans Safety Investigator Darryl Chambers said.

For one, there are a lot of driveways along the corridor, and barriers would limit access and increase travel time. They would also limit emergency vehicles, force Caltrans to widen the road in both directions in some spots and force road closures in the event of a major accident.

Also, while a median would limit the severity of crashes, a fixed object would likely cause more accidents, Chambers said.

"I'm not opposed to a barrier," Landon said. "It just has to be what's best and most cost effective in that location."

And then there's the reality of funding such a project. A median along the 13.6-mile stretch of highway would cost about $100 million.

Chambers said the focus will likely be on trouble spots and adding safety measures, possibly including a center median, in a series of smaller projects.

"I would say from a resource standpoint, incremental improvements are the reality," he said. "I can say my district director is going to tirelessly turn over every rock trying to find funding."

CULTURE CHANGE NEEDED

One of the most important aspects to improving safety, and one of the most difficult to execute, is changing the culture, Steffenson said.

A recent State Farm survey concluded 36 percent of drivers admitted to texting while driving, while 29 percent said they access the internet while behind the wheel.

That number goes up dramatically in the 18-29 age group, with 64 percent saying they text and drive and 54 percent admitting they go online.

"The culture change is going to be difficult," Steffenson said.

Accurate statistics on texting and driving, and how it relates to collisions, are impossible to discern for one simple reason: Drivers lie. Unless there's an eyewitness or material evidence, there's simply no way to know.

According to Steffenson, outreach is the best approach to changing culture. The Start Smart classes aimed at helping new or soon-to-be drivers are one approach. Using social media, public education, community meetings, posters and traffic alerts are others.

"What my guys see is that culture shift and (needed) education," Steffenson said. "Being courteous and kind would take care of a lot of our crashes."

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