Sara Christiansen: Planned Highway 174 ‘safety project’ a design for reckless driving |

Sara Christiansen: Planned Highway 174 ‘safety project’ a design for reckless driving


Collision data was gathered from the CHP Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System (SWITRS) raw data reports.

Conservation Law Foundation. Take Back Your Streets. Boston MA. May 1995.

Finch, D.J., Kompfner, P., Lockwood, C.R., Maycock, G. Speed, Speed Limits and Accidents. Transport Research Laboratory (Crowthorne, UK), Report 58, 1994.

Preston, B. “Cost Effective Ways to Make Walking Safer for Children and Adolescents,” Injury Prevention, 1995, pp. 187-190.

Caltrans is proposing to widen and straighten a 1.9-mile length of Highway 174 in Nevada County, at a cost of almost $28.5 million, in order to create a safer highway.

The Caltrans project, according to its own report, will require over 14 acres of private land to be confiscated from homeowners, clear cutting over 1,700 conifers and uncounted other oaks and smaller trees. The roadbed will go from the existing 22 to 28 feet to 40 feet of pavement plus three feet of gravel on each side to a total minimum of 46 feet, effectively doubling the roadbed.

The worst part of their plan is the clear cutting of the beautiful trees that line Highway 174 to a distance of 32 to 42 feet or more on either side of the center yellow line to create a clear recovery zone.

In a July 24 Other Voices column, Caltrans Director Ray Zhang explains that there were 102 accidents on the 1.9 mile stretch of Highway 174 from 2005 to 2017. What he failed to share are the top three primary collision factors of these accidents, which are 30 percent speed, 26 percent improper turn (over-correcting) and 14 percent DUI. None of the “improvements” proposed in the safety project will stop people from speeding, drinking and driving or being distracted. As a matter of fact, studies show that they may just make the problem worse.

A number of studies will tell you wider roadways increase speed and the number of collisions.

According to Caltrans, 37 percent of collisions (on this same stretch of roadway in the same time frame) involved a vehicle that ran off the road and struck an object. Caltrans believes adding a clear recovery zone would reduce these types of accidents. But studies show that when a roadway is widened and the roadside cleared of “fixed objects,” speeds of all vehicles increase because motorists set their pace in response to the environment of the roadway.

Having a Clear Recovery Zone is part of a design concept known as a Forgiving Highway. A Forgiving Highway is a road that “forgives” motorists when a mistake is made. It seeks to smoothly redirect vehicles that leave roads and allow wide enough clear zones to bring vehicles to controlled stops if and when they leave the roads. Clearing the roadside of unneeded obstacles (trees) and flattening and rounding slopes and ditch sections are standard design as part of the concept.

For decades, the forgiving highway was thought to be a way to promote “safety” when in reality it lulls us into a false sense of security. The Conservation Law Foundation (1995) finds that vehicle speeds increase when roads are widened because there is an extra “safety cushion” provided by the increase lateral distances and increased sight distances. Psychologically, the wider road tells motorist that it is safer to speed up, pick up their phone or otherwise be distracted.

The foundation also points out that designing for faster driving speeds, while possibly reducing the frequency of crashes, also increases the severity of car crashes. When analyzing collision data from You Bet to Brunswick, which is a straighter portion of Highway 174 with wider shoulders, I found that in the same 12-year period there were fewer accidents that resulted in injury but twice as many severe injuries were reported.

A number of studies will tell you wider roadways increase speed and the number of collisions. Given that Caltrans’ Transportation Concept Report for Highway 174 (published Feb 2017) includes adding bike lanes along most of the highway, Caltrans should design all “improvements” with a shared space mentality and not only accommodating the mistakes of motorists. As reported, every one mile per hour reduction in traffic speed, in general, reduces vehicle collisions by 5 percent, and reduces fatalities to an even greater extent.

The aim of the SaveHwy174 group is to work with Caltrans to come up with a new plan that better addresses safety while also preserving rural quality. We believe the safety focus should be on how to slow drivers down, not create opportunity for more reckless driving.

For more info please visit

Sara Christiansen lives in Grass Valley. See this story at for a list of references.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Grass Valley and Nevada County make The Union’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.


Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User