Drivers on 49 in law’s headlights
California Highway Patrol Officer Rigo Morffi counts the cars on Highway 49 driving without their headlights.
“Out of six, three have it on, three have it off,” said Morffi, who has special enforcement duties with the CHP.
This week, Morffi has started pulling over motorists driving without lights on, to talk safety.
For now, talk is cheap. But in 30 days, talk will turn to $110 tickets and one point on driving records when CHP steps up enforcement of the daytime headlight law on Highway 49, from McKnight Way south to near Auburn.
There’s no doubt in Morffi’s mind that using headlights can prevent crashes. As he drives through a section of Highway 49 just south of McKnight that is heavily shadowed by pine trees Tuesday morning, he notes how hard it is to see cars without lights.
“Just look for yourself,” said Morffi. “You’re pulling out of here, cars going by, camouflaged by the shadows of the trees.”
The headlight law draws mixed reviews from motorists, roughly half of whom haven’t been following the law, the CHP estimates.
Mike Thomas, of Lake of the Pines, was pulled over Tuesday after he forgot to put his lights on.
Thomas said he thinks the law is fine and it saves people.
“I would think it makes the highway safer,” said Thomas.
Others don’t like the daytime headlight law.
Greg Gibson, of Alta Sierra, was not pulled over – yet. But he thinks that sooner or later he’ll forget and then face an expensive ticket.
Gibson said the CHP should focus on the reckless and dangerous drivers rather than the absent-minded.
“If they’re going 55 and careful, how fair is it to get a ticket when it is very expensive?” said Gibson.
The CHP will start issuing headlight tickets as soon as March 20 in an effort to prevent another year like 2002, when there were four fatal accidents on Highway 49, according to CHP figures.
One happened after a driver pulled onto the highway from one of the many side streets on Highway 49 – the type of accident that can be prevented by the increased visibility of headlight use, officials say.
“What it does is make people more visible,” said Lieutenant Commander Ed Michalkiewicz, who heads the Grass Valley CHP post. “For people pulling out from side roads, it gives the ability to pick them up a little sooner than a car without a headlight on.”
A 73-year old woman was killed on a September afternoon last year after she pulled out onto Highway 49 from La Barr Meadows Road into the path of an oncoming car.
Less than two years before, a deadly crash killed a 75-year-old woman pulling out onto Highway 49, a resident of nearby Mountain Air Mobile Home Park. That crash prompted nearby residents to call for a safer intersection.
The deadly crashes illustrate two Nevada County issues that the CHP is hoping to address with headlight use during the daytime – older drivers and numerous side streets.
The numerous side streets present a danger, said Morffi. And traffic is only going to get worse as the population grows.
And there are many older drivers in the area, said Morffi. They may find it easier to see oncoming traffic with headlights on.
One fatal crash involved an older driver pulling onto Highway 49 who was struck by a car without its headlights on, said Morffi.
The number of side streets is one of the main reasons for the headlight law on 14 miles of Highway 49 in Nevada County, and on into Placer County.
Those side streets feed commuters onto the highway, commuters who can become impatient with the heavy traffic, pulling out into the path of an unseen vehicle.
Highway 49 is one of only four in the state to require daytime headlights.
There was aggressive enforcement of daytime headlights on Highway 49 from 1999 to 2001 after proper signs were put up, said Michalkiewicz.
Then a lull occurred for some reason, said Michalkiewicz, who took the lieutenant commander post in Grass Valley in October 2001. He said he didn’t know why the lull occurred but surmises it was because of post Sept. 11 duties taken on by the Grass Valley CHP, and increasing state police responsibilities.
After citizens fought for the headlight law, Michalkiewicz said it is only right to enforce it.
“They made an effort to get that put in place,” said Michalkiewicz. “For their safety, it’s only right we enforce it to make Highway 49 safer for them to travel.”
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