Dead man’s curve: Highway 17 horrors revisited

Accident scene Friday at Laurel Curve, Highway 17/Bill Lovejoy photo, Sentinel

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

 

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24 Responses to Dead man’s curve: Highway 17 horrors revisited

  1. Jean says:

    On the rare occasions I drive Highway 17, I am the ONLY driver not exceeding the 50 mph speed limit. u00a0Everyone else drives as though 50 is a minimum speed. u00a0If I had to drive during rains, I would slow even more. u00a0Time to ticket and ticket hard, consistently, every day. u00a0Exceed 50, get a ticket. u00a0Six months of that message might due the trick. u00a0Drivers have a weapon in their hands. u00a0It is time to acknowledge this and do something about it.

  2. Storkbites says:

    Why not classify Highway 17 as a safety corridor like sections of u00a0Highway 1 and double the fines for speeding?u00a0

  3. Franco says:

    u00a0I couldn’t agree with you more Jean I have always driven Highway-17 at 45 mph and when the road widens in certain spots I will go 50 mph. The problem is people want to tailgate and drive too fast. You all know the saying “Speed Kills.

  4. Franco says:

    u00a0I couldn’t agree with you more Jean I have always driven Highway-17 at 45 mph and when the road widens in certain spots I will go 50 mph. The problem is people want to tailgate and drive too fast. You all know the saying “Speed Kills.

  5. One thing most people do is blame the speeders but fail to put any fault on the oblivious overly cautious drivers! u00a0 nnThey are just as much at fault as the speeders.u00a0 These are the people who stay in the left lane, typically not breaking more than 35MPH, and never look back nor have a clue that cars piling up behind them.u00a0 They always tend to play magnetic cars since they go exactly the same speed as the driver to the right of them who is in the slow lane.u00a0u00a0 And don’t let them come up to a truck!u00a0 They’re on their brake, then giving it gas, then on the brake riding it all the way down the hill right beside the 18 wheeler, and in the blind-spot of the 18-wheeler no doubt!u00a0u00a0 These people are putting all the others at risk behind them all because they don’t want to merge over to the slow lane.nnHere’s where they clash, you then have a person who was on time but now appears as if he’s late to work, an interview, a doctor heading to the hospital to deliver a baby,u00a0 or someone trying to make it to the hospital.u00a0 They may have been doing 50MPH before but now they come to a screatching 15-25MPH on 17 since the original slow poke in the fast lane was doing 35MPH but the cars behind that person are doing the accordion effect and slowing down even more.u00a0 The person who was doing 50MPH becomes anxious and begins weaving or working through traffic to get past the Jam.u00a0 Then they either clip or cut off a person or even take a turn too hard and crash pulling in other cars to the messy mix. nnIf people were considerate, merged to the right (slow) lane after passing and even used their turn signal, to acknowledge and plan to others of their future decision, this “system” would most likely move traffic in a more orderly fashion and calm down the anxiety as well as the speed of many drivers. nnI have not yet seen the CHP go after these people or even warn them.u00a0 Most likely, it doesn’t generate as much revenue as ticketing the speeders! u00a0 nnJamming up the fast lane is also a hazard as well for the emergency vehiclesu00a0 such as ambulances and cop cars.

  6. Stacia Street says:

    Maybe you should be less concerned about those people than about why you need to nanny the roadway.u00a0 People are often “caught” in the fast lane by the actions of those ahead of them, or the unwillingness of drivers in the right hand lane to let them pull over.u00a0 Slow down, chill out, and quit worrying about who’s in whatever lane.u00a0 Enjoy easing over the hill instead of getting so worked up about “jamming up the fast lane!” and your blood pressure might drop.

  7. Stacia Street says:

    Exactly right.u00a0 Every speeding driver thinks they’re so special that they can defy the laws of physics, and they need to terrorize those who have the audacity to observe the speed limits.u00a0 We need more tickets for tailgating as well.u00a0 When was the last time THAT happened?

  8. Steve says:

    I’ve driven that stretch thousands of time and going south (towards Santa Cruz), I swear the grade of that curve isn’t correct, rather than a natural banked turn to the right, it feels like the berm slopes left (which if you’re going too fast would pull you into the north bound lane right at the break where this accident happened). Maybe it’s just my perception here, but I always slow down in advance of this curve because if you have to slow down in the curve, it’s usually too late.

  9. Komara says:

    Or triple fines. Seems like the only thing that will get the attention of the population is to fine the heck out of them.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I don’t disagree with most of what you’ve said. However, if there is a semi on the road, you can expect everyone to move into the left lane to pass, at some point. That includes drivers doing the speed limit, and also drivers who aren’t tailgating others, who shouldn’t be confused for not keeping up with traffic.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I see tailgating as a major issue on 17. It is possible to keep up with traffic without tailgating. But the car behind you will think you’re going too slow because of the larger gap.

  12. Hwy 17 survivor says:

    Previously the majority of accidents were mostly at the upper Glenwood area.u00a0 This area is vastly improved from the construction improvements, however, after Granite construction completed the Laural updates on the southbound side, it became the new upper Glenwood.u00a0u00a0 SV fire is constantly responding to this site, an estimate is 2 times per day for accidents.u00a0 It probably is more, and with a little water on the road, it is a disaster there.u00a0 It seems to me upon driving it that the design is flawed and at the bottom of the curve, even at normal speeds, the curve sharpens and the tendency of the road is to push you to the wall or oncoming traffic.u00a0 After all the improvements there, the roadway is more unsafe now than before, as evidenced by the profound increase in accidents since the improvements were done.u00a0 A way to potentially improve the situation is instead of just postingu00a0 the signage of “Slippery roadway, reduce speed”, post “Speed limit 40 mph when wet”.u00a0 By doing this it would a least give a driver reference as to what is somewhat a safe speed to drive this road during light rain.u00a0u00a0 If you are normally driving at 58-65 mph as many do, if you reduce your speed to 55mph, you are still to fast for Laurel and you will probably crash.u00a0 Finally post a sign that a speeding violation on 17 will result in a minimum $1500-2000 fine.u00a0 People will think twice about pushing the pedal then.

  13. S Walker says:

    You’re correct. The road is banked the wrong way. It’s always been that way. @least since 1962 when I 1st drove it. When they 1st began working on 17 many years ago it always amazed me that they never corrected the Laurel curve. It may have been an attempt to keep drivers slowing going into the curve, but it seems stupid to me.

  14. No, most people are not ” caught upu00a0 in the fast lane” by the actions ahead of them.u00a0 Explain 10 cars all riding in the fast lane and the slow lane is completely empty and crawling up the hill doing 35 – 40MPH.u00a0u00a0u00a0 This is the fact that they are incompetent drivers that have no concern for others other than themselves! nnQuit worrying about those in the fast lane driving slow.u00a0 Well ITS THE LAW THAT THEY MUST MOVE OVER!nnSo I’m saying don’t get on the speeders when there are incompetent and oblivious drivers on the road.nnI really hope your not one of those women who have the rear view vanity make up mirror turned at them the whole time their driving! n

  15. I agree with that statement, and if that happens its the LAW for everyone to allow all the merge in a respectful orderly fashion. u00a0u00a0u00a0 Truth is most driver’s don’t know how to do that either :(u00a0u00a0u00a0u00a0u00a0u00a0 I see drivers who are driving good in the slow lane with poor judgment, they’ll just put their turn signal on at the last minute, then cut right in front of the car that’s in the fast lane.u00a0 But whenu00a0 you look the car they cut in front of had no cars behind them.u00a0 No planning and hence why I say that there are many incompetent drivers. nnI grew up on the east coast where people drive more considerate, they use turn signals ahead of when they turn, they know how to merge, and don’t drive in the rain as if its ice and snow.u00a0

  16. For those drivers who don’t know its breaking the law when they drive slow in the fast lane, please refresh your memory below (many states have this, including California!):nnnSourcenhttp://www.mit.edu/~jfc/right.htmlCalifornia VEHICLE CODEnnnSECTION 21650-21664nnn21650. Upon all highways, a vehicle shall be driven upon the righthalf of the roadway, except as follows: (a) When overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in thesame direction under the rules governing that movement. (b) When placing a vehicle in a lawful position for, and when thevehicle is lawfully making, a left turn. (c) When the right half of a roadway is closed to traffic underconstruction or repair. (d) Upon a roadway restricted to one-way traffic. (e) When the roadway is not of sufficient width. (f) When the vehicle is necessarily traveling so slowly as toimpede the normal movement of traffic, that portion of the highwayadjacent to the right edge of the roadway may be utilized temporarilywhen in a condition permitting safe operation. (g) This section does not prohibit the operation of bicycles onany shoulder of a highway, on any sidewalk, on any bicycle pathwithin a highway, or along any crosswalk or bicycle path crossing,where the operation is not otherwise prohibited by this code or localordinance.nu00a0

  17. It is totally banked wrong and that’s how it properly needs to be addressed to correct the issues on that turn, not funky rough pavement!. u00a0 nnIf you think HWY 17 is bad now, just think how it was back when there was no Center Divide breaking up the north and southbound traffic!!u00a0 I’m sure S Walker can attest to that!u00a0 u00a0 My buddies who were born in SC tell me SCARY stories about those days!u00a0 Pure DEATH!

  18. Tailgating is a major issue.u00a0 I’ve seen cars next to me being tailgated about 1-2ft off their bumper.u00a0u00a0 I typically honk and look at the tailgater to call out what he’s doing.u00a0 Typically they back off but not all.u00a0 Its as if they get caught up in the moment and the fight or flight kicks in!u00a0 nnI honk since his wreckless action will take me and others out if they crash.u00a0 And yes I’m driving in the SLOW lane.u00a0 I hate to say it but from my observation many of these tailgated drivers would have avoided the situation in the beginning if they had recognized they were not passing anyone in the fast lane and merged over to the slow lane.u00a0 I do see 10% of the tailgated cars who were passing but the guy behind them was so fast,u00a0 furious and late thatu00a0 the slower driver had no time to merge in the slow lane and also tried signaling they were moving over to allow them to pass…. all with the other driver riding up theiru00a0 bumper.nn

  19. Vehicle code Stating it is ILLEGAL to stay in the left “Fast” lane when the vehicle is NOT PASSING!u00a0 Otherwise all Vehicles must move over to the right “Slow” lane:CALIFORNIA VEHICLE CODEnnnSECTION 21650-21664nnn21650. Upon all highways, a vehicle shall be driven upon the righthalf of the roadway, except as follows: (a) When overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in thesame direction under the rules governing that movement. (b) When placing a vehicle in a lawful position for, and when thevehicle is lawfully making, a left turn. (c) When the right half of a roadway is closed to traffic underconstruction or repair. (d) Upon a roadway restricted to one-way traffic. (e) When the roadway is not of sufficient width. (f) When the vehicle is necessarily traveling so slowly as toimpede the normal movement of traffic, that portion of the highwayadjacent to the right edge of the roadway may be utilized temporarilywhen in a condition permitting safe operation. (g) This section does not prohibit the operation of bicycles onany shoulder of a highway, on any sidewalk, on any bicycle pathwithin a highway, or along any crosswalk or bicycle path crossing,where the operation is not otherwise prohibited by this code or localordinance.nu00a0

  20. Mr. Walker says:

    u00a0> These are the people who stay in the left lane, typically not breaking nmore than 35MPH, and never look back nor have a clue that cars piling upn behind them.nnI agree that this is a problem. They are inconsiderate though, not dangerous. There’s no danger until this.nn> The person who was doing 50MPH becomes anxious and begins weaving or nworking through traffic to get past the Jam.u00a0 Then they either clip or ncut off a person or even take a turn too hard and crash pulling in othern cars to the messy mix. nnI’ve been driving 17 since long before the center divider. Drivers “working through traffic” are not uncommon and are a menace. To even use the phrase seems to me to indicate a competitive mindset rather than a cooperative one.nnWhen I commuted the hill I arrived at work about 45 minutes early nearly every day. That was by design, because I understood the unpredictable nature of traffic on Highway 17. I consider allowing this buffer for unforeseen delays the responsible thing to do.nnDBD, if you and others would do the responsible thing, then if you encounter a driver being inconsiderate, you’ll not be tempted to do something dangerous.n

  21. Steve says:

    IMHO, this is the BIGGEST problem on 17. It’s the “white knuckle” drivers in the left lane. They move into the left lane to pass a slow truck…and they NEVER move back. They’re completely paralyzed by the road in the first place, and now they’re in the left lane. This causes cars to back up, and then forces people to pass on the right. Of course, people then tailgate even closer to prevent those people on the right from getting in front of them….and the beat goes on.u00a0nnI’m certainly not advocating speeding on 17. And yes, most drivers think they’re better than they are. But, if the slow drivers would just stay to the right, then the natural flow of traffic in the left lane would be sufficient and everyone would be happy. Most of the impatient drivers would be satisfied with a consistent flow in the left lane, they would not pass on the right, and there would be no need to tailgate so closely. If you’re freaked out by hwy 17, then stay in the right lane- or better yet, take a different route.

  22. Cynthia says:

    u00a0Using the turn signal!!!! Yes! What a novel idea!! I am from a different state and I am amazed that 8 out of 10 people do NOT use their signal here! What is UP with that? When I actually DO see someone using their turn signal, I cheer and wonder if they, too, are from somewhere other than California. Come on, people, we are NOT mind readers and cannot guess which way and when you are going to turn. Have some common sense and consideration. A simple painless movement of flicking the turn signal can only improve the driving experience… on 17 and everywhere else.

  23. Anonymous says:

    The only solution to the violent and too frequently fatal carnage at that curve is to install a barrier. u00a0Inconvenient for those who cross between 17 andu00a0Laurel, I know, but…nnNothing else will prevent the horrors that have alwaysu00a0occurredu00a0there with such frequency and regularity. u00a0It is absolutely and obviously the wrong place to be without a barrier.

  24. Dlindseth says:

    I think that retaining wall addition may have saved my life this morning. Around 6:30 am a witnessed a car traveling backwards, going southbound. A second later it slammed into the retaining wall, and I think it was the section that was just added. Nearest I can figure, it the wall had been absent he would have slammed into me head on!!

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