Fellow travelers forge ahead

By Elise Modrovich
Special to the Sun

On May 1, the Fellow Travelers, a group of concerned citizens who first got together almost two years ago after some friends were involved in a horrible traffic accident in the canyon section of Hwy 178, held a meeting at the Lake Isabella Government Center to present new plans for safety enhancements along that corridor.

Don Morrison, chair of the steering committee for the Fellow Travelers, said they first met as a group of friends in their living room to ask the question, “What can we do?”

The group first looked at the history of the Hwy 178 Kern Canyon corridor, collected data and did research. They found that the rate of accidents is seven times greater in the old canyon section than in the newer, divided highway, with 90 percent of these accidents caused by “driver error.” The 178 canyon section is considered one of the five most dangerous roads in California, with 80 percent of the accidents involving residents of Kern County, and 65 percent from the Kern River Valley alone.

“We knew we had to do something to try and make the canyon safer,” Morrison said.

The Travelers began consulting with Nicolas Esquivel, a Caltrans Civil and Traffic Engineer with over 25 years experience in his field, and Sergeant Richard Goulding, local resident and our lead CHP officer for the Kern River Valley.

Esquivel has been working on this project for the last two years, focusing his efforts on the older canyon section of the 178 between China Grade Road and the mouth of the canyon near Rio Bravo Ranch. Esquivel’s research showed that there have been 600 accidents in the last ten years, which translates to one per week.

This sounds horrible, but factoring into that equation that 24,000 vehicles travel the 178 in a week, it actually is a fairly small percentage.

Unfortunately, 75 to 80 percent of those accidents involve local residents, the people who use these roads every day.

“When you push your luck day after day, it catches up with you,” Esquivel said.

He also discovered most of the accidents involve a single vehicle, which means, “No one else is involved. People are driving too fast or too erratically, and they lose control. I don’t want to blame the road. Let’s just say it’s less forgiving.”

Of course, if you ask a local resident, they will always say it’s the tourists who are the real problem.

But Esquivel’s research showed the “real problem” with tourists is not that they drive the roads dangerously – quite the opposite. Tourists tend to drive the unfamiliar canyon road very slowly, “stopping to smell the roses,” Esquivel said, which leads to driver frustration and even road rage, and that’s when reckless behavior ensues like tailgating, crossing the double yellow lines, and even passing along the narrow stretches with limited visibility.

Esquivel stated, “Slower vehicles are really not the problem. Impatient drivers cause the accidents.”

Those of us who drive the canyon regularly know this all too well, and we also know that by law, slower drivers are required to use designated turnouts, and turning out when five or more cars are following any vehicle is the law.

“But you should really pull out if even two or three cars are behind, because you’re clearly impeding traffic,” Esquivel said.

The problem is, as the Fellow Travelers discovered, there are no legitimate turnouts in the entire canyon section. There are some older paved areas, inadequate in length, with either improper markings and signage, or none at all.

After his extensive research, Esquivel has earmarked three adequate turnout locations along each side, the equivalent of approximately one turnout every three miles. In addition, these turnouts will be clearly marked and each one will have three regulatory black and white signs leading up to the turnout, so slower drivers have adequate time to make adjustments.

When asked if the signs should be larger, a brighter color, and perhaps more than three be installed at each turnout, Esquivel replied, “The signs are black and white because that indicates they are designated ‘Regulatory’ and gives the CHP the authority to give citations for violations. I will try to make the signs as large as I can, but I don’t want to litter the landscape with too many. I put in a sign if it will aid the driver. If you put in too many, they get lost in the shuffle.”

While Esquivel warned that “This is a work in progress, so don’t expect anything overnight,” he did announce that the paving, striping and signage is slated to begin toward the end of this month, and that through the current 155 highway improvements already in the works, improved turnouts, marking and signage would be a part of that project as well.

The conversation turned to questions about the speed limits, and whether or not they should be lowered to increase safety. Esquivel said that speed limits are not set arbitrarily – they are studied and based on a percentage of speeds from average drivers, and research shows that if speed limits are set too low, it causes more problems than it helps.

Having said this, Esquivel pointed out, “Speeding is relative, but it is really you driving faster than you know you should. Dropping your speed by 10 mph only adds three and a half minutes to this trip.”

Sergeant Goulding stated there are three prongs to Traffic Safety, what he calls “The Three E’s,” the first of which is “Engineering,” which is where Caltrans comes in, and the second is “Enforcement,” generally the realm of the CHP, although the Sheriff’s Department and even the USFS Law Enforcement have the authority to cite drivers.

“Which they have,” Goulding said.

Some impediments to CHP’s ability to stop and cite drivers who are driving recklessly or refusing to use the turnouts, is the canyon’s tough terrain.

“Have any of you tried to do a U-Turn in the canyon? Sometimes I will have to drive two or three miles before I can safely turn around, and if there are other vehicles on the road, I often can’t pass them safely, or expect them to move over when there is no shoulder but the river below, and by the time I can make it back, the driver is gone,” said Goulding.

Goulding added that communication is also a problem.

“There is limited to no reception in that area. So I can’t even call my fellow officers for backup or to advise them of a situation coming their way.”

This led to a discussion about the lack of operational Call Boxes in the canyon.

“I think there are three, and only one of them works,” one attendee said.

“Ah, well, that’s a county issue,” Esquivel said. Debbie Freeland, representative for Supervisor Mick Gleason’s Office, Janie Sustaita, representative for Assemblymember Devon Mathis, and Romeo Agbalog, representative for Senator Jean Fuller, were all in attendance at the meeting and promised to address the issue.

The CHP has also been limited by budget restrictions and a lack of available patrol cars to properly monitor the area. Goulding’s efforts to obtain Federal Grant funding for additional officers and to increase safety measures was denied; however, starting this month and continuing throughout the summer season, the CHP have been granted a slight temporary increase in staffing, which means that one officer will be assigned to patrolling the canyon section of the 178 at all times.

“We all live here, and we care about this community,” Goulding said, adding, “The community supports us, and we want to support the community.”

Goulding stated that the last “E” of Traffic Safety stands for “Education.”

Fellow Traveler Ernie Anderson said, “Education is far more important than pointing fingers.”

Esquivel agreed.

“Education efforts need to be broad and gentle. These accidents are not specific to any one age group. It’s across the board.”

Goulding said his educational efforts often involve stopping drivers.

“I look at them as ‘educational opportunities.’ You’d be surprised how ‘educational’ a citation and fine can be.”

Fellow Traveler Jacqueline Morgan stated that “It is the responsibility of all drivers for their own safety, which means drive defensively, turn on your headlights, wear your seatbelt, never cross the double yellow lines, don’t let road rage get to you, don’t tailgate, but get out of the way of tailgaters and use the turnouts.”

Esquivel added, “When we are behind the wheel, we hold our own fate in our hands.”