Caltrans Has A Killing Problem (And Fixing Our Roads Would Solve It)

They’re some of the most beautiful in the world, California’s roads—offering unparalleled scenic beauty, and vistas so breathtaking they’re etched into our imaginations (and our state quarters). But there’s a dark underbelly to the Golden State’s 402,078 miles of roadways: bloodthirsty killers linger within their midst.

Okay, egregious employment of auxesis aside, California does have a serious infrastructure problem: its public roads, among the most poorly maintained in the country, are also some of its most dangerous.

Last year California surpassed the United Kingdom in terms of gross domestic product, and in doing so become the world’s 5th largest economy. Yet despite its status as an economic juggernaut, its roads recently received the honor of “third worst in the nation,” with 50% considered to be in poor condition. In the assessment, done by Infrastructure Report Card, only Rhode Island (54%) and Connecticut (56%) fared worse. At 50%, that means California has nearly as many roads “in poor condition” as New England even has roads.

This isn’t news to anyone. Potholes are so ubiquitous that driving any distance on the 101 Freeway feels like attempting an Olympic qualifying mogul run, and badly designed gutters mean getting caught in a San Fernando Valley rainstorm often requires latent childhood knowledge of how to ford a river. Toss in the ever-likely fender bender, courtesy of the worst traffic in the United States, and it’s no surprise that Californians shell out an average of $844 (per motorist, per year) for costs arising from roads in need of repair.

An accurate depiction of driving in a SoCal rainstorm.

And yet, the greatest cost to motorists has never been monetary.

Call it the “call of the wild,” but mountain roads will always hold an allure: the adrenaline rush of the twists and turns; that noise your engine makes as you conquer hairpin after hairpin. There’s a powerful feeling inovercoming l’appel du vide; the siren song of the void. It makes you feel alive.

But as people chase that mountain sound, and thus a reaffirmation of life, they are doing so to their deaths.

In 2016 a trio of Fontana teens lost control on the Angeles Crest Highway, sending their pickup plummeting 900 feet down one of the steepest drops of the road’s 66-mile length. Skid marks, just past the safety of a turnoff, would guide investigators to the site of the wreckage the next day.

An interactive map of fatalities from the NHTSA shows that between 2014 and 2016, at least 20 people were killed while driving the Angeles Crest Highway. Statistics like this one are nothing new. The classic, SoCal scenic beauty of the San Gabriel Mountains has long belied a bloody past, with Los Angeles Times articles reporting on record numbers of road fatalities as far back as 1993.

According to the CHP, the Angeles Crest Highway has seen more than 1,800 accidents since 2012 alone. And to what end? When will enough be enough?

More notable than the Angeles Crest Highway is the California State Route 138, a desert blacktop stretch with such a gruesome reputation that it’s not only been dubbed “Blood Alley,” but is also a fixture on listacles outlining the most dangerous roads in the nation.

Running along the northern foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, before sprinting eastvacross the Mojave Desert, this connector’s downfall is that for much of its 105 miles it has no divider between its two opposing lanes. Head-on collisions are frighteningly common, with most crashes attributable to speed, driver error, and the inability to safely pass on a route heavily trafficked by tractor trailers. Over the years numerous people—more often dead than not—have had to be fished from the waters of the California Aqueduct after their vehicles left the road near the bridge crossing its span.

Caltrans has made several attempts over the last two decades to widen the road, but few of these projects have ever come to fruition. Recently, after money was proposed to fix the highway, the Los Angeles Times did an analysis of the accident data, which shows that in the five previous years at least 56 people died and 875 were injured on the 138.

But if course, “recent” is often relative when you’re discussing state governments: that analysis was published in 2001.

With very little digging it becomes clear that Blood Alley is the nickname given to many roads across the U.S. In the Golden State, Route 138 shares its nickname with California 46 to its north—the span of highway notorious as the one that claimed actor James Dean in 1955.

In sharp contrast to Route 138, however, is the amount of work that has been done to on California 46, whose most dangerous section (in contrast to the 138’s desert) weaves past the vineyards and farmlands of San Luis Obispo County. Since its $300 million upgrade by Caltrans, wherein they widened it from two lanes to four, the corridor has seen a stark reduction of fatal accidents.

The road, which intersects with California 41 in what is known colloquially as the Cholame “Y”—named for its awkward shape—previously saw six deaths in the span of two months in 2017.

It was the Cholame Y that took the life of James Dean, as well.

Local residents, now no longer willing to risk their own at the intersection, hope that forthcoming plans to widen it too will soon prevent it from claiming lives for good.

Caltrans, the ball is in your court.

Have a serious injury and need legal advice?
Contact Howard Blau.

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Check Out These References for Further Reading:

“Here’s How California Ranks For ‘Deadliest’ Car Crashes.” Patch Media. Retrieved 18 July 2018.

“Where Southern California’s many deadly vehicle crashes occur.” Orange County Register. Retrieved 18 July 2018.

“California’s roads are some of the poorest in the nation and rapidly getting worse.” Digital First Media. Retrieved 18 July 2018.

“Dangerous Roads.” Retrieved 18 July 2018.