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Safety takes front seat on 49

Robyn Moormeister

Toshimi Heist, 76, thought her last moment on earth would be spent frantically screaming inside her little Nissan Sentra after a crash on Highway 49, but now that she’s still alive, the issue of highway safety holds new urgency for her and her family.

Fatalities on the stretch of the highway from McKnight Way in Grass Valley south to the Placer County line have decreased in comparison to 2005, which some believe is largely due to stepped-up traffic enforcement by the California Highway Patrol.

Three people have died in accidents on the highway this year, compared to six at the same time last year. In all, 11 people died on that same stretch of Highway 49 in 2005, resulting in residents urging local and state officials to step up safety measures.

On June 16, a public presentation was held declaring Highway 49, the main traffic artery into western Nevada County, a safety corridor. Signs were posted and additional safety measures were reportedly in the works.

Yet plans for a centerline rumblestrip on Highway 49 have since been stalled, according to Caltrans officials.

Rumblestrips were scheduled to be installed by the end of summer, but the project deadline has been extended to Dec. 1, said Caltrans representative Shelly Chernicki.

“It’s just how it’s all fallen into place,” Chernicki said Thursday.

That’s no consolation to 77-year-old Charlie Heist. He nearly lost his wife on July 14 when a 19-year-old Nevada City man reportedly ran a red light in his Chevrolet truck at Lime Kiln Road, broadsiding Toshimi Heist’s vehicle on the driver’s side at an estimated 50 miles per hour.

“You start thinking a lot; you start reflecting a lot when something like this happens,” Charlie Heist said. “She’s lucky to be here.”

He said rumblestrips wouldn’t have helped his wife, and he’d like to see a concrete barrier with breaks in position for emergency response vehicles.

“They can put up more signs, but that’s a joke,” he said. “To me, that’s a joke. A rumblestrip might help if they were falling asleep or got distracted, but the main thing they could fix is the people.”

He said driving on Highway 49 is a dangerous endeavor that will only change when people change the way they drive.

“(Driving on Highway 49) you get flipped off. They tailgate. They go over the double yellow line. I’m doing 55 and they just blow by me,” he said. “What’s the hurry? Just slow down and live. I don’t know a better way to put it.”

So far, enforcement seems to be the only hindrance to carnage on Highway 49. Since implementing a zero-tolerance policy last December, the number of citations issued by the CHP has quadrupled since last year.

CHP officers have handed out 1,854 citations this year on Highway 49 between McKnight Way and the Nevada County line, 1,460 of which were for speeding. At the same time last year, only 363 citations had been handed out on the same stretch, of which 196 were for speeding.

“That’s quite a difference,” said CHP Officer Earl Cummins. “It’s really having an effect.”

In the meantime, Toshimi Heist watches television and reads when she can find a comfortable position on a pile of pillows. She said she’ll never forget how close she came to death.

“There was this great big thing coming at me, and I tried to escape but I couldn’t,” she said. “I tried to steer as much as I could and I guess I screamed. Then my windshield turned into a spider’s web. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that mess.”

She suffered broken ribs, a collapsed lung, internal bleeding and fractures in her back. She has a large hematoma on her left hip from the impact.

She was in critical condition initially, then downgraded to serious. Charlie Heist said he was preparing himself to sign a “Do Not Resuscitate” order when his wife’s condition finally took a turn for the better.

Released last week after a recovering in the ICU trauma center at Sutter Roseville Medical Center, she said she is still bruised all over her body.

The couple is focused on healing and is looking forward to celebrating their 55th wedding anniversary on Aug. 17.

“I cheated death,” she said. “Somebody up there must like me.”


To contact staff writer Robyn Moormeister, e-mail robynm@theunion.com or call 477-4236.

Enforcement efforts

Since declaring a “zero-tolerance” policy for reckless driving on Highway 49 in December of 2005, following a year that saw 11 fatalities on the thoroughfare, the California Highway Patrol has ramped up its enforcement.

Citations issued between Jan. 1-Aug. 1:

Total Speeding

2005 363 196

2006 1,854 1,460

Source: California Highway Patrol

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