Brian Hamilton: For your safety and mine, give me a brake! |

Brian Hamilton: For your safety and mine, give me a brake!

The Union photo/John Hart
John R. Hart | The Union

After all these years, nearly 15 of them, I still don’t get it.

My morning “commute” from South County to The Union has been pretty much the same ride ever since our family moved here. Heading up Highway 49 to Grass Valley is a pretty short stretch in comparison to so many others who regularly drive down to Sacramento or the Bay Area.

But at least once a week, my easy-going, 12-minute jaunt up the hill quickly turns into a white-knuckle trip — albeit for just a few seconds each time.

The trouble typically starts just north of Wolf/Combie roads, where Highway 49 bottlenecks down to two lanes of traffic before reaching Brewer Road.

And as someone who has been driving this dangerous stretch of highway for many years …let’s give each other a brake out there (especially at those bottlenecks) to help ensure we all will “arrive alive” where we’re headed in such a hurry.

Or it might occur about five miles farther up the road at Lime Kiln. And if not there, then surely just after La Barr Meadows Road, where four lanes narrow again into two and motorists must merge left — but are often surprised by someone hitting the gas in an effort to speed past and win the “race” to the single lane ahead.

Gentlemen (and ladies), cool your engines.

Side by side, it’s obvious our two cars won’t both fit through the bottleneck at the same time, which leaves me to hit the brakes — with hope drivers behind have had that morning cup of joe before they left home and are alert to such a sudden move — or veer to the right shoulder in order to avoid sending Mario Andretti to my left into oncoming traffic and a head-on collision.

Of course, the truth for all those Andrettis out there is that their short burst of speed that puts both of our lives at risk — as well as our children or loved ones along for the ride — essentially has won them just one position in line — where they’re very likely to remain just ahead of me throughout our morning drive all the way to McKnight Way.

So, although understanding life does happen and we might be running late for work or school, is it really worth putting all of our lives on the line for that?

Of course not.

Highway 49 certainly has a harrowing history when it comes to car crashes. Back in 2005, the main artery into western Nevada County claimed the lives of 11 people over an 11-month period between Auburn and Grass Valley.

On Dec. 31 of that year, The Union published a special report “Highway 49, a deadly drive”, revisiting each of the eight crashes and each of the lives lost. Five of those eight collisions were head-on crashes.

Following that report, Bruce and Deborah Jones — a South County couple that survived their own head-on collision on 49 — spurred the creation of Citizens for Highway 49 Safety and a campaign to raise awareness, advocate for safety measures and, of course, remind people to simply slow down.

The response was an impressive example of how a small community can come together to make a difference. Caltrans, along with Nevada County officials, the California Highway Patrol and local activists created a Highway 49 Safety Corridor Task Force to plan safety improvements, identify available funding sources, promote public awareness and discuss the feasibility of long and short-term roadway improvements to increase safety on Highway 49.

What followed in fast fashion was the re-striping of traffic lanes and replacement of reflective markers by Caltrans and heavy patrol by the CHP, writing dozens of speeding tickets daily, along with roadside reminders to slow down — as many of us will remember the “Arrive Alive Drive 55” banner at La Barr Meadows Road.

As the community conversation continued, Citizens for Highway 49 Safety and The Union both advocated for the installation of concrete dividers. Caltrans countered with a plan to grind a center-line rumble strip and wider double yellow lines. At the time, The Union argued in an editorial that rumble strips would essentially serve as a “Band-Aid” and wrote that a much larger investment, one to fund concrete dividers between the north-south lanes of the highway, was needed to bring an end to the kind of head-on collisions that led to the majority of those fatalities.

With a projected $200 million cost for concrete dividers, Caltrans went with the rumble strips.

And, I’m pleased to report, The Union was wrong. Caltrans was right. Those rumble strips have proven to be much more than just a Band-Aid.

“In the years since 2006, we have seen a noticeable decrease in fatality collisions on lower SR-49. To date, there have been 14 collisions with fatalities since the beginning of 2007 (a total of 15 deaths),” CHP Officer Greg Tassone shared in an email. “During that time period, we have been averaging 1.5 fatality collisions a year (that’s a period of nine years). In the seven years prior to this, we were averaging nearly 3 such collisions a year (2.85 approximately, depending on where you draw the boundary of the safety corridor) — a total of 19/20 collisions (22/23 people killed).

“We have personally observed drivers taking corrective action and avoiding collisions due to the rumble strips being installed in this area.”

And knowing that, while enjoying a smooth ride on the freshly repaved Highway 49 a few weeks ago, I was concerned whether those rumble strips would return once the asphalt had cooled and striping was repainted.

Sure enough, Caltrans came through again, grinding them back into place and then striping right over the top, which is Caltrans’ new standard for such center-line safety measures.

With what seems to be only a growing number of distractions for drivers, it’s good to know those rumble strips are in place to snap people back to attention before it’s too late.

And as someone who has been driving this dangerous stretch of highway for many years — from the time when our daughter was in the car seat behind us to today when she’s actually in the driver’s seat herself — let’s give each other a brake out there (especially at those bottlenecks) to help ensure we all will “arrive alive” where we’re headed in such a hurry.

Brian Hamilton is editor of The Union. Contact him at or 530-477-4249.

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