Spring can’t come soon enough at Highway 17’s Laurel Curve.
Tragically, a man lost his life there on a rainy, late-winter Friday morning.
The head-on collision closed all northbound lanes for hours and slowed traffic dramatically southbound. According to the California Highway Patrol, the driver was headed south on 17 when he lost control, crossed the center divide and struck an SUV. Two were injured in that car and two other vehicles also were involved.
The latest smashup on what was once an infamous roadway came as Caltrans, the state transportation agency, is planning to begin repaving this section of 17, which arguably is most dangerous turn remaining on the twisting highway between Los Gatos and Scotts Valley.
How bad is it? From 2004 through September 2010, there were 2,092 crashes on the Santa Cruz County side of Highway 17, according to the California Highway Patrol. Over the same period, there were 534 crashes at Laurel Curve — 26 percent of all crashes on 17. This winter, up to last week, has been mild, which seems to have kept down the crashes on 17. But last week there was a nine-vehicle pileup at Laurel Curve. Then came Friday’s tragedy.
Ironically, Laurel Curve stands out because of the remarkable success of a safety program that began in 1998. The program, Safe on 17, was a joint venture of a number of public agencies, including the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission, San Francisco Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Caltrans, Freeway Service Patrol, Scotts Valley Police Department and the California Highway Patrol on both sides of the hill. Under the program, law enforcement moved aggressively to ticket speeders, which, along with a public education effort, quickly made a dramatic difference in safety.
That wasn’t all. In the first decade alone, more than $23.5 million was spent on the Santa Cruz County side of 17. The money went to building retaining walls, improving drainage, widening road shoulders, and replacing guardrails between the Summit and Granite Creek Road in Scotts Valley. Transportation officials said the improvements made wet weather driving safer, increased roadway visibility for drivers — and gave them a place to pull over in the event of a breakdown or traffic collision.
When the safety program began in 1998, there were 283 injuries and fatalities on Highway 17. By 2009, 10 years after the program began, the total dropped to 133.
But CHP officers wonder whether this vastly improved safety record has also caused a false sense of security among some drivers. They say too many drivers are again exceeding the 50 mph speed limit on Highway 17 — and when it comes to a more difficult-to-navigate turn like Laurel Curve, the results can be deadly. The numbers bear this out: In 2010, the CHP reported 164 injury collisions and two fatal crashes on 17 — a 14.5 percent increase over 2009 in injury and fatal collisions and 8 percent higher than the annual average since the Safe on 17 program started reporting crash data in 1999. In a 2010 report, the RTC noted that a state moratorium on CHP overtime corresponded to the fewest citations given on Highway 17 since traffic ticket data began to be tabulated starting in 2003. The extra CHP presence on Highway 17, from both the Santa Cruz and San Jose offices, comes in part from this budgeted overtime. State budget difficulties, however, could have a further impact on Highway 17 enforcement. While the CHP gets funding for its $1.97 billion budget largely from state driver’s license and vehicle registration fees, not from the general fund, Gov. Jerry Brown has indicated he wants to preserve the option of reducing staffing in the future without layoffs, and has delayed filling some positions. Caltrans improvements also are vital.
According to a recent report in the San Jose Mercury News, federal officials met with Caltrans in December to survey Laurel Curve and came away convinced a new, experimental paving surface should be tried to reduce crashes. When driven over, the high friction surface reportedly leads to a noisy and rough ride expected to slow drivers down.
The state agency also plan to install a speed-warning electronic sign at the curve later this year, and eventually widen the road shoulders plus install a taller guardrail. The news story also reported, sadly, that Caltrans may consider constructing a center divider to prevent southbound drivers from veering into northbound lanes and causing head-on crashes.
Which is just what happened Friday.
Because despite all the safety improvements, the CHP presence, the flashing warning signs and the turnouts, speed and unsafe driving kills on Highway 17 — and especially at Laurel Curve and especially in wet weather.
This post will be the Santa Cruz Sentinel Editorial Sunday, March 18, 2012