[FoRK] particularly unsafe stretches of CA highway
khare at alumni.caltech.edu
Tue Aug 3 19:48:43 PDT 2004
[Just drove back on something similar, Hwy 58 in the Mojave (though 395
sounds much 'worse'). Can't even remember what it must have been like
without the confidence of the XLR V8 to go passing when I used to take
my Bonneville out on that route to Vegas...]
Death Stalks the Highway
Since 1992, there have been more than 2,000 crashes along a 90-mile
stretch of U.S. 395 near Ridgecrest. About 150 people have died.
By Sharon Bernstein
Times Staff Writer
5:48 PM PDT, August 3, 2004
RIDGECREST, Calif. — Travis Johnson put his 2-year-old daughter, Hope,
into her car seat and sat down next to her in the back of the Toyota.
His friend Patrick Cole was at the wheel, and another friend, Amber
Courtney, was in the passenger seat.
The Mojave Desert sun was just starting its ascent as the car carrying
the baby and the three friends — all from Ridgecrest — turned south on
U.S. Highway 395 on a Sunday last August, heading to a motorcycle show.
An hour later, 23-year-old Cole was dead, thrown from the car when it
was broadsided by a motor home filled with vacationers. Courtney, 19,
also was dead. Johnson, 20, was in critical condition, with severe head
Paramedics found Hope still strapped into the baby seat, barely alive.
Her skull had been wrenched from her spine by the force of the
For weeks, Hope lay in a morphine-induced coma at Loma Linda
University Medical Center near San Bernardino.
People in her hometown grieved. But nobody was surprised.
Since 1992, the earliest year for which the state has records, there
have been more than 2,000 crashes on the 90-mile stretch of 395 that
runs north from Interstate 15 to the turnoff for Ridgecrest.
More than 1,500 people have been injured on the two-lane highway, and
about 150 have died. Three teenagers were killed just last weekend,
when their car collided with a truck hauling two trailers at an
intersection in Hesperia.
"When I got the phone call about Hope, and they said it happened on
[the] 395, I thought, 'Of course,' " said Jackie Harris, Hope's mother.
By the time she graduated from high school, Harris already had lost her
godmother and two friends in accidents on U.S. 395.
The road through this part of the Mojave is scenic. Dotted with Joshua
trees and framed in places by nubbly, blue-brown hills, it is listed on
registries of beautiful drives in California.
But it is treacherous.
It winds swiftly uphill and plunges downhill again, running like a
roller coaster over blind dips that locals call "whoop-de-dos." On some
stretches, there is little or no shoulder.
The toll of injuries and deaths on U.S. 395 has touched many in
Ridgecrest, a town of 25,000 that grew up to serve the nearby China
Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, and tinges the most ordinary activities
Parents worry about every out-of-town field trip and football game.
They teach their teenagers to drive hugging the right-hand side of the
road to avoid swerving cars and trucks. Some residents refuse to drive
on U.S. 395 at all, traveling miles out of their way to shop or visit
For many in Ridgecrest, the sweet, soft face of Hope Johnson, now 3,
has come to symbolize the critical importance of improving U.S. 395.
A year after the towheaded toddler's accident, Hope's bright blue eyes
can still see, but her brain has difficulty processing the images.
After months of immobility, she is beginning to try to stand, but she
can't yet walk.
Her mother and stepfather work with her every day, moving her limbs
and plying her with little kisses when she smiles or laughs or tries to
do something new.
With proper medical care, her doctors say, Hope may be able to regain
85% of her former abilities.
Darla Baker, Hope's step-grandmother, is an editor at the town
newspaper, the Ridgecrest Daily Independent, which has published five
articles on the little girl since the collision.
Baker wrote some of the stories herself, describing Hope's recovery in
an intimate, folksy style.
In this small city, the story of the girl whose life was forever
altered has been something of a wake-up call.
"Hope's accident changed my life," Baker said. "I decided it was time
for something to happen."
When a reporter visited recently to talk about U.S. 395, Baker put a
notice in the Daily Independent, and more than two-dozen people came to
City Hall. One couple, who had moved, drove more than two hours to talk
about the loved ones they had lost.
It was a bleak accounting:
Police Chief Michael Avery lost his 22-year old son, David Ozanne.
Sharon Hartley lost her mother, Billie Van Der Pool.
The local newspaper lost its chief news editor, Jill Andaloza, and its
page designer, Will Higgen.
Deputy Mayor Richard "Duke" Martin has lost so many friends that he
lists them by the decade.
"In the 1970s, I lost Bert French, the owner of French's Liquor
Store," he said. "In the 1980s, I lost Paul Nelson, a high school
classmate. In the 1990s, I lost Mr. and Mrs. Dick Johnson. In the
2000s, I lost two friends, Bill Cunningham and Clyde Irvine."
U.S. 395 is not the most dangerous road in California. That dubious
honor goes to a section of Angeles Crest Highway in Los Angeles County.
But it is one of just 12 narrow, older roads identified in 2002 by
state transportation planners as dangerous and in need of improvement.
Like other rural routes, it was built as a two-lane link between small
towns. Now it carries an average of 15,800 vehicles per day — more than
twice as many as 20 years ago, and is an increasingly important
Long isolated from the congestion that plagues more urban parts of the
state, the towns around U.S. 395 are now bursting with development. But
as in many rapidly urbanizing areas, increased development has not been
followed by significant roadway improvements.
Rose Melgoza, a spokeswoman for the California Department of
Transportation, said — and people in Ridgecrest know it's true — that
many of the accidents are caused by driver errors.
Patrick Cole, for example, may have been trying to make a U-turn on
the road when the motor home slammed into him. And four teenagers who
were killed two years ago may have drifted into the wrong lane.
But highway safety advocates note that two-lane roads have eight times
the accident rates of interstates. If these roads were a little wider,
or had more of a shoulder, the consequences of human errors might not
be so severe.
"The basic premise is that if you make a mistake, you shouldn't have
to pay with your life," said Gerald Donaldson, research director for
Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington, D.C.-based safety
organization. "You should design a highway so that people can make an
error and then recover."
In June, after nearly a year of intense lobbying, residents won a
$348,000 state safety grant that will provide money for warning signs
and an education campaign about safe driving on U.S. 395. And officials
from several cities and three counties, who for years despaired of
finding the money to improve the road, pooled their money and came up
with $10 million, which along with a $4-million commitment from
Caltrans, will be enough to begin environmental studies on proposed
Deborah Barmack, director of management services for San Bernardino
Associated Governments, said she has been working to fix U.S. 395 since
1990, when she started her job at the regional planning agency.
"Over the last several years, the rate of growth and traffic and
development there have resulted in a much higher accident rate, and
it's just horrible," Barmack said. "We are trying desperately to make
When state highway officials set out in 2000 to pinpoint the most
dangerous two- and three-lane roads, one of the first to be identified
was U.S. 395.
Transportation planners proposed a number of improvements, including
shoulders, rumble strips, a median and a plan to widen the road. A few
improvements have been finished, including the modernization of a
particularly dangerous intersection. But it will cost about $1 billion
to do all the work.
Because the area is home to the California desert tortoise,
environmental studies alone could take up to seven years, and it could
be more than a decade before the project is finished.
The tragedies on U.S. 395 have not been limited to Ridgecrest. People
in Adelanto, a rapidly growing community right on the highway, also
have had friends and family killed in accidents.
Eric Foster, a 21-year Caltrans employee, moved from North Hollywood
to Adelanto 13 years ago to raise his children in the quiet, affordable
"I've seen a lot of accidents," said Foster, whose job includes
helping to clean up accidents on the highway.
So when a police officer knocked on the door and asked, "Does Peggy
live here?" Foster said he could almost picture the scene.
Peggy Cowlishaw, Foster's stepdaughter, was just 18 and newly in love
with the son of close family friends. She had died in a head-on crash
with a tractor-trailer. Her boyfriend, Nolan Flesher, 19; his brother,
Neal, 17; and two other teen-agers also were killed.
"I left my home up there to come to a little town to raise my
children," Foster said, "and look what happened."
In Ridgecrest, the parade of deaths and injuries has affected the way
people live, where they go and how they get there.
Nelly Curry, who has lived in Ridgecrest since 1986, used to go south,
toward San Bernardino, when she wanted to buy a nice dress or shop in a
big retail store.
Now, she heads north out of town and then southwest, toward Palmdale,
and shops there. She'd like to find medical care in Palmdale too, but
she has a condition that requires the expert intervention available at
Loma Linda University Medical Center.
"I had a very close call going to the doctor," Curry said. "It was at
a dip. A pickup truck passed five cars and went up on the sand. I
almost cried. I'm afraid to go to San Bernardino."
H.K. Holland, who has owned a mortuary in Ridgecrest since 1967, has
had to reach into his own reservoir of strength more than once to make
it through the burials of people he knew well.
"A couple of years ago, we had four in one family, and I personally
knew each of them," he said.
Shortly after Hope's accident, her mother packed the little girl's
belongings, including her toys and medical supplies, in a Jeep Cherokee
and moved to Santee in San Diego County. Now when Harris comes back to
visit, she drives the long way around — through Los Angeles County and
down from Palmdale, rather than risk the two-lane portion of U.S.
395.Denise Irvine Simmons, who grew up in Ridgecrest, already had moved
to Orange County when her father died on U.S. 395 about a year ago.
Even though her stepmother still lives there, Simmons rarely drives to
Ridgecrest anymore. She's too scared of the road.
"Here's where my Dad died," the 40-year-old Simmons said, her tensed
hands clutching the steering wheel of a Mazda SUV.
When Simmons and her siblings were teenagers, Clyde Irvine, a
scientist at the China Lake weapons station, took pains to teach them
how to drive on U.S. 395. Like other Ridgecrest parents, he exhorted
his children to drive as close to the right-hand edge of the road as
possible — never mind that this meant violating laws about staying
within a lane.
Simmons is driving this way now: On stretches where there is no
shoulder, the passenger-side wheels of the SUV ride to the right of the
lane, just inches away from the gravel that lines the road on both
Her father's habit of driving to the right, she said, saved her
stepmother's life. The passenger side of the car was almost undamaged.
Simmons points out the window to where five white crosses are planted
in the desert ground just off the road. In the time it takes to count
them, the SUV swoops down into a dip so steep it takes your stomach
A little way down the road, near Adelanto, there is another clutch of
crosses, honoring Peggy Cowlishaw and the other teens killed here.
"If they had a cross up here for everybody who died on this road,"
Simmons said, "it would look like a cemetery."
More information about the FoRK