[FoRK] particularly unsafe stretches of CA highway

Rohit Khare 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  
with anxiety.

  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  
trucking route.

  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  
desert town.

  "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."

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