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Officials Discount Highway's Role in Holiday Crash

December 01, 1988|MEG SULLIVAN | Times Staff Writer

State and county officials disagreed this week whether planned improvements to California 126 could have saved the lives of seven people who were killed when a pick-up truck and a compact car collided on the road on Thanksgiving Day.

California Highway Patrol officers investigating the accident were hesitant to blame the two-lane highway known as "Blood Alley."

They said another fatal accident occurred 2 days later on a four-lane stretch of California 126 that was part of the first phase of a $54-million California Department of Transportation project to widen 23 miles of the highway to four lanes by 1995.

Michael Allen Eads, a 24-year-old Ventura College student from Fillmore, drove his car into a utility pole last Saturday west of Timber Canyon Road between Santa Paula and Fillmore, the CHP said.

Though Eads was traveling on a four-lane stretch of the highway, "that didn't stop the man from running into a pole and burning to death," CHP Officer Jim Patterson said.

"Widening the road doesn't necessarily prevent this sort of collision," he said. "That only makes the road nicer to drive on."

In the Thanksgiving Day accident east of Fillmore, Patterson said, only a cement barrier could have stopped the pick-up truck driven by Frank R. Shoults from veering into oncoming traffic and hitting a car carrying five people, including a pregnant woman.

Cement barriers are not among the improvements planned for that stretch of California 126, officials said.

Patterson said Shoults, of Thousand Oaks, may have been intoxicated. Fourteen beer cans--six opened and eight unopened--were found in his truck. Investigators are awaiting results of a blood-alcohol test on Shoults. Officers said the beer cans may have been emptied long before the truck struck the car.

"No matter how many lanes there are, a car that's out of control can hit someone or something," said Jack Hallin, CalTrans chief of development in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

He agreed with Patterson that only a barrier could have prevented the accident. But state law allows such barriers only on freeways, not on highways, he said, because landowners on either side of the road must be granted access in both directions.

But Ventura County officials, who have been pressing for improvements to California 126 for nearly 20 years, said a wider road is a safer road.

They said the planned widening of California 126 where the accident occurred could have made a difference.

The 4 1/2-mile-long widening, which will cost $10 million, is expected to be completed by 1995, Caltrans officials said.

"If it were a four-lane highway, it certainly would have decreased the possibility of a fatality," said Oxnard Mayor Nao Takasugi, past president of the Ventura County Assn. of Governments, which has long lobbied for the project.

"Even if he were drunk, the driver of the truck would have had a chance to correct or the other car could have veered into the other lane," Takasugi said.

Santa Paula Mayor Carl Barringer, chairman of a citizens group called the Highway 126 Improvement Assn., agreed.

"He would have had to cross three or four lanes before they hit him," Barringer said. "Anytime you have two lanes, if the other person makes a mistake you don't have room to correct. You can't get away."

Additional lanes could have made the crash less severe, Barringer said.

"Maybe there wouldn't have been a head-on," he said. "Maybe there would have been a sideswipe."

The two Thanksgiving weekend accidents underscored the highway's treacherous reputation, which peaked 4 years ago with a head-on collision similar to the Thanksgiving Day accident.

Three young Oxnard men, who were returning from Lancaster, collided with a car carrying a former beauty queen and the teen-age daughter of a prominent Santa Paula family. All five died. Ten more would die on the road before the year was over.

In response to public pressure, the county installed signs asking motorists to use headlights--even during the day. For the first time in California, the Highway Patrol began using radar on a major highway, Barringer said.

Meanwhile, the state Transportation Commission, which disburses money for road improvements, approved widening 12 miles of the highway east of Santa Paula. The road from its westernmost point at U.S. 101 to Santa Paula--a distance of 10 miles--is a four-lane freeway.

The first phase of the project, which was completed in 1986, widened 5 miles from Santa Paula east to Hall Road. The second section, construction of which is expected to begin in April or May, stretches 4 1/2 miles from Hall Road to Fillmore. Work on the third section, which covers 2 1/2 miles on either side of Piru is not expected to begin until late next year or 1990.

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