John Burgeson of Agua Dulce can point to his back yard as proof that traffic has changed on Sierra Highway.
Five times in the last four years, cars have sped off the highway and tumbled over a cliff and into the rear of Burgeson's home on Mint Canyon Road, just east of Agua Dulce Canyon Road.
"It scared the hell out of me," Burgeson said. "I've tried to figure out why they go off the road and the only thing I can figure is that they're traveling at a high rate of speed."
The California Highway Patrol thinks so too and initiated a crackdown in mid-July on speeding on Sierra Highway between Acton and the Antelope Valley Freeway in Santa Clarita. The stepped-up enforcement--adding one radar car and two "chase" cars to the normal patrol strength--doubled the number of speeding tickets issued on that stretch from an average of 60 a month to 120, Officer John Manduca said.
But that in turn has led to complaints about the crackdown--most prominently by Acton attorney Larry H. Layton, who is at the other end of the spectrum from Burgeson.
Layton has offered to defend for reduced fees all those motorists who--like himself--were given speeding tickets in the crackdown.
Although the CHP strongly disagrees, Layton argues that by trying to force all motorists to slow to less than 55 m.p.h.--regardless of the weather, traffic or other conditions--the CHP is creating an even worse hazard than speeders: When vehicles move slower than the usual pace of traffic, rushed commuters take dangerous chances to get around them.
"They're making it an unsafe highway because they're giving tickets not for what's unsafe, but for driving over 55, which may be safe and may not be safe depending on the circumstances," Layton said.
"It's just a matter of time before some of these people who are afraid to go over 55 cause other drivers to do everything they can to get around them."
On the contrary, said Burgeson, who praises the crackdown for bringing a degree of relief from a problem that has grown over the last dozen years, since he and his family moved to Agua Dulce.
"When we first moved out here, there was practically no traffic on Sierra Highway . . . the morning commute used to be a pleasant time to have a cup of coffee and collect my thoughts," Burgeson said. "But now it's like getting on an international raceway. . . . I buckle up my seat belt and watch like crazy. . . . There's been more than one occasion that I've spilled my coffee."
But despite the ongoing crackdown, more people have been killed on Sierra Highway this year than last, and the accident rate has remained at the same level, according to CHP statistics.
Last year, one person was killed and 37 people were injured in 60 accidents, Officer Michelle Fink said. As of mid-November this year, four people have died and 31 have been injured in 56 accidents, Fink said.
A Santa Paula woman and her 18-year-old daughter were killed and 13 others were injured in a four-car crash June 23 on the highway east of the Antelope Valley Freeway, CHP officials said.
In a Nov. 5 accident, two men were killed when their car crossed into oncoming traffic on Sierra Highway north of Vasquez Canyon Road in Canyon Country and collided with three other vehicles, CHP officials said.
Earlier this month, an Antelope Valley mosquito abatement truck rear-ended a car, triggering a chain-reaction pileup involving five cars, said Investigator David Davidson of the Antelope Valley sheriff's station. After hitting the car, the truck swerved to the left and struck a van head-on. The rear-ended car struck two more autos.
No one was seriously injured in the multiple crash, but the truck driver was cited for unsafe speed, Davidson said.
Davidson estimated that the crash was one of about five reported each week on the stretch of Sierra Highway that runs through Palmdale and Lancaster--a stretch of road that lies north of the crackdown zone.
Over the years, Sierra Highway earned a bloody reputation because of speeding motorists trying to pass each other on the two-lane strip that starts at San Fernando Road, near the Golden State and Antelope Valley freeways, and runs 40 miles to Palmdale, then winds through the Antelope Valley.
When the Antelope Valley Freeway opened in 1963, the highway changed from a congested and dangerous thoroughfare into a quiet country road. But in recent years, thousands of motorists have returned to Sierra Highway to escape commuter traffic on the freeway.
The CHP's Manduca said that so far, most of the tickets issued in the crackdown have gone to residents of the Acton area and the Antelope Valley, some of whom have been clocked at speeds of more than 90 m.p.h. in the 55 m.p.h. zone.
Commuters using Sierra Highway between Palmdale and Lancaster increased from 15,600 in 1982 to 27,300 in 1990, said Tim Bochum, an analyst for the Lancaster Public Works Department.
Manduca also pointed to heavier commuter use as the reason the crackdown apparently has had little effect on the number of accidents.