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Deaths Haunt a Highway : Fatal Crash on Route 126 Prompts Local Officials to Again Press Statefor Concrete Barriers

October 18, 1994|JEFF McDONALD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It is a winding stretch of road known as "Blood Alley," an orchard-lined thoroughfare that has claimed roughly one victim a month for the past year and a half.

In the 10 years prior to 1993, dozens of others have died and hundreds more have been injured in violent collisions on California 126 between Ventura and the Los Angeles County line east of Fillmore.

One particularly gruesome crash killed seven people on Thanksgiving Day, 1988, including a family of five from Orange County on their way to visit relatives in Santa Paula.

Given the highway's history, the latest head-on collision, a fierce crash late Sunday that killed two men and injured three people, surprised few.

Local officials have been fighting with the state Department of Transportation for years to get concrete dividers installed between the east and westbound lanes outside Fillmore.

But for a variety of reasons, state highway officials have resisted.

At the scene of Sunday night's grisly crash, one Fillmore city official said dividers could have saved the lives of 25-year-old Salvador Gonzalez of Santa Paula and his friend, Avelardo Meza, 22, of North Hollywood.

"How many is enough?" Councilman Roger Campbell asked. "When does Caltrans say we finally have enough deaths and we should put center dividers in?"

Caltrans officials, however, say barriers would create more problems than they would solve.

In addition, transportation analysts studied the highway after a fatal collision last year and determined that "this stretch of State Route 126 was built to current standards and our investigator found no roadway deficiencies."

Campbell, who doubles as the assistant fire chief in Fillmore's volunteer Fire Department, was one of the first on the scene Sunday. He said he is tired of responding to fatal accidents on California 126.

"These two young men who died (Sunday) could have been saved," Campbell said.

Just last Friday, a 32-year-old Santa Barbara woman was killed along California 126 near Piru when a football-sized rock crashed through the front window of a car in which she was riding.

Investigators in that case said the small boulder was most likely kicked up toward the car by another vehicle. Cynthia Ann Johnson would have celebrated her 33rd birthday Monday.

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State transportation officials have opposed the dividers, in part because there are numerous homes and businesses along the corridor, and the department is in the midst of a years-long effort to widen the highway to four lanes from Ventura to Santa Clarita.

"The major concern about putting a median barrier down where you have driveways and homes is you have to leave openings for those people, or they're going to make a U-turn at the earliest opportunity," said Charles O'Connell, Caltrans' local deputy director. "That can create additional conflicts."

O'Connell said widening plans were slowed because of the sluggish economy and the Northridge earthquake, which bumped a series of new retrofitting projects to the top of the state's priority list.

"The funding is short and it's had to be budgeted out," O'Connell said. "That's the reason for the delays."

To date, the highway has been widened eastbound only to Piru, leaving more than a dozen miles of a twisting, two-lane road that is a favorite of Central Valley truckers hauling crops to the Port of Hueneme and Navy trucks traveling to Ventura County's two military bases.

Campbell plans to ask the Fillmore City Council tonight) to send letters to state transportation officials requesting that barriers be installed. But, he conceded, he has sent such letters before.

"Those were mostly polite requests, and I'm tired of being polite," he said. "This is not a request, this is going to be a demand."

Santa Paula Councilwoman Margaret A. Ely said Monday she would welcome another full-court press against state transportation officials reluctant to install barriers.

"If there were dividers, it might slow cars down enough so that people wouldn't get killed," said Ely, who wrote Caltrans district Director Jerry B. Baxter about the issue after a 1993 crash that killed three people.

"People die there all the time," Ely said. "It's probably the most unsafe stretch of road in the county. If you drift over the line there, you're dead. It's just a real death trap."

California Highway Patrol Sgt. Dane Hayward, who has patrolled Ventura County's roads since 1977, said people simply drive too fast along California 126.

"People are in too much of a hurry, they don't take the time they need to take and they pass people unsafely," Hayward said. "Any area in the state that has similar conditions--one lane in each direction and people in a hurry--that's where the majority of our crashes occur."

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Hayward said the Pacific Coast Highway south of Oxnard to the Los Angeles County line historically is more dangerous than California 126. "It has the second-highest fatality rate per capita in the state," he said.

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