CHOLAME, Calif. — A deceptively straight and smooth highway tempts drivers to go too fast through this postcard picture of rural California, where cows meander in the foothills and tractors harvest grain on the valley floor.
The results have been fatal time and again on California 46, where actor James Dean died more than four decades ago.
Five more deaths this month bring the grisly total to 31 since 1992 on the two-lane stretch of highway known as Blood Alley. The latest accident, a head-on collision, occurred even as the state has begun designing a $68-million project to widen a heavily traveled stretch to four lanes.
The recent crash claimed a family of four from the town of Reedley, near Fresno, and a young Visalia woman. It happened on a Sunday, typically a heavy traffic day for cars full of happy San Joaquin Valley families headed west to the ocean and weary drivers headed home from the beach.
"The bulk of the traffic is on Fridays and Sundays," said Officer Tom McConnell, California Highway Patrol spokesman for northern San Luis Obispo County. "Usually when they come over here, they are coming here on vacation, and the cars are full. When they hit, a lot of people die."
Many of the accidents occur on a 22-mile stretch of the highway. This deadly segment begins east of Paso Robles and runs through vineyards and pasture land over an occasional hill along the Estrella River Valley. It ends where California 41 splits off for Fresno.
The California Department of Transportation has found that there are fewer accidents east of this "Y" in the road, because half the cars head northeast to Fresno, while the rest stay on California 46 to Bakersfield.
It was at an older version of this intersection that James Dean died in his Porsche 550 Spyder as dusk fell Friday, Sept. 30, 1955. He was westbound on California 46 through the hills on his way to a race near Salinas. Dean was probably speeding, police said at the time, and a farmer pulled out, not seeing Dean's silver car in the fading light. The farmer survived. So did Dean's mechanic, a passenger in his car.
California 46 was upgraded and moved slightly north in the early 1960s. But its two lanes have remained virtually unchanged since then, while the population of the southern San Joaquin Valley has grown 120% in the intervening years.
This stretch is now the straightest and fastest route for the 2 million people in the south end of the valley to get to their favorite playgrounds. Valley residents pour through this chute on their way to Lake Nacimiento, Morro Bay, Avila Beach, the Monterey Aquarium, Pismo Beach and more.
"The alignment of the road is so good that people want to drive a lot faster than the speed limit," said Orville Morgan, head of maintenance for Caltrans in the area. "They come off of Interstate 5 over in the valley and want to do 70 or 80."
The speed limit is 55 mph. A double-fine zone for speeding, rumble strips to wake up sleepy drivers and additional passing lanes have been in place since 1995, when 14 people died on the same portion of the highway.
Those steps came after the November 1995 accident that killed Jeff Fairbanks, popular editor of the San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune, his wife, Ann, a reporter at the paper, and their young daughter, Siena. Another daughter was rescued from their burning Volvo. The CHP blamed a sleepy motor home driver.
CHP officers say the number of deaths has dropped since the improvements were made, but the number of accidents in which people have been injured has remained steady. The road widening is scheduled for 2004.
Last week, the CHP received a $70,000 federal grant to pay for extra patrols of the highway's most dangerous stretch during the next four months. Officials said they will review other ways to keep the road well patrolled when that grant expires.
In the most recent fatal crash--April 11--Reedley residents William and Rebecca Janzen and their two children were headed west to their second home in the small beach town of Cayucos. Visalia resident Toni Street was driving home from the coast in front of a three-car caravan of friends. It was raining. Caltrans had put out signs warning of dangerous road conditions.
William Janzen was driving faster than 55 mph, Officer McConnell said, although the actual speed hasn't been determined. The family's Lexus hydroplaned into the oncoming car driven by Street, 24. Two other cars in Street's caravan piled into the crash.
William Janzen, a 38-year-old fruit rancher, his teacher-turned-homemaker wife, 33, and their sons, Jaron, 4, and Justin, 22 months, were killed. So was Street.
Passersby rescued Street's son, Jordan, 1, and Steven Maderios, 5, from Street's burning car. The children were treated at a hospital and released a day later.
Although the CHP often blames drivers for accidents on the highway, area residents tend to blame the road. They talk about Blood Alley as if it were a living, breathing, evil thing.
"I'm terrified of that road," said Atascadero resident Becki Nunez, 33. "Ever since I got hit by a drunk driver when I was 18, I hate that road. I do everything I can to avoid it."
Jay Palmer, president of the school board in Shandon, six miles from Cholame, lost a grown son, Scott, 13 years ago on the highway. The young man was walking away from a stalled car on a rainy night when he was struck by a rear-view mirror jutting from a passing semi-truck and killed. The truck driver has never been found.
"If you stop and think about the geography of California, it's a little crazy," Palmer said. "We've got a lot of real good thoroughfares going north and south. But those highways going east and west are just awful. It makes no sense."