Isaac Gonzales was driving on Sept. 16 when he crashed and died on Highway 126 west of Fillmore, making him the eighth fatality on the California state route in a seven-month time frame.
The string of fatalities stretching along the 47-mile corridor began in February, when two were killed on Feb. 23. Three more deaths occurred in June, followed by one in July, one in August and Gonzales in September.
“The question now that’s being reviewed carefully is what we can do to improve the road,” said State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara.
The death of Gonzales was one of the most recent fatalities that has occurred on Highway 126 this year. The other fatal collisions included a crash that occurred on the early morning of June 12, when three people were killed after a motorist drove the wrong way on Highway 126 in Piru. The driver was a 35-year-old man from Los Angeles who was driving east on west travel lanes of 126 near Center Street. The head-on crash killed two Fillmore residents, including the driver, a 31-year-old woman, and her passenger, a 52-year-old man.
On July 3, one person was killed in a single-vehicle crash on Highway 126 in Ventura; and on Aug. 24, a 35-year-old motorcyclist from Lodi was killed in a collision on Highway 126 near Val Verde just outside and to the east of the Ventura County line.
THE HIGHWAY DISCONNECT
“Every collision that involves a fatality is a bad collision, especially for those that are affected — it’s a traumatic event that affects family and friends of those that pass away,” said Rolando Tejeda, public information officer for the California Highway Patrol’s Ventura Area.
Tejeda’s area covers the portion of Highway 126 that stretches from the 101 Freeway in Ventura to Fillmore city limits, which is approximately 21 miles. In his area, three fatal collisions occurred in 2015, and two have occurred so far this year.
A Road Safety Assessment, studying the 126 from Hallock Drive in Santa Paula to E Street in Fillmore, a distance of about 7 miles, was conducted in 2014 by an independent group, with the participation of Caltrans. It showed that out of 320 total crashes that occurred from 2006 through 2012, there were nine fatalities.
The state and local community recognize that this is a dangerous stretch of road, Jackson said, “and we are working to identify the best way to try to make the road safe. But a lot of road safety has to do with the drivers, so the drivers have to drive safely and cautiously.”
Because of the way the 126 corridor is divided among various entities, it’s unclear just how many deaths have occurred on it each year. The highway, however, once dubbed Blood Alley, has had a notorious history of fatalities, including an accident on Thanksgiving in 1988 that left seven dead.
A CLOSER LOOK AT CAUSES
The 2014 Road Safety Assessment showed that out of 320 total crashes that occurred from April 2006 through March 2012, there were nine fatal crashes and 111 injury crashes.
Thirty-six percent were in some way attributed to speeding, 28 percent were improper turns, and 6 percent were coded as “influence alcohol” as the primary contributing factor. Three other crashes involved a driver “Under Drug Influence” and 10 more crashes involved drivers who were suffering from “fatigue.”
Tejeda said that the California Highway Patrol has been proactive in trying to prevent DUI crashes.
“In 2015 the California Highway Patrol made 64,335 arrests for driving under the influence with either alcohol, prescription drugs or other drug use,” Tejeda said, regarding all of the CHP’s areas throughout the state. “In order to combat this, the California Highway Patrol uses sobriety checkpoints or has maximum enforcement periods in order get impaired drivers off the road before they cause a collision.”
Frequent collisions also occur due to orchards surrounding SR-126 and it being a two-lane highway, Tejeda said.
With more technology coming out, people nowadays tend to be more distracted then they were before, said Tejeda.
“California Highway Patrol recognizes the problem, which is why we introduce programs, such as Start Smart for teen drivers and Age Well, Drive Smart for senior drivers,” Tejeda said.
His tip for drivers on Highway 126: “Always keep a high visual horizon to see any potential hazards that might lie ahead,” Tejeda said. “Also, remember to always buckle up and know that motorists can act on their observation of a suspected drunk driver by calling 9-1-1.”
As of 2013, according to the most recent figures available, the average annual daily traffic is 35,000 vehicles a day, both directions combined, said Michael Comeaux, public information officer for Caltrans District 7.
“Safety on Highway 126 is chiefly affected by poor decisions that some drivers make,” said Comeaux, including driving at unsafe speeds, driving under the influence and driving distracted.
“There is a great need for drivers to obey the posted speed limit and not drive distracted. That’s true everywhere,” Comeaux said, “and it’s true on Highway 126 where there are narrow driveways, railroad crossing and uncontrolled U-turns, left turns and numerous access points.”
Trucks account for approximately 10 to 15 percent of the traffic on this stretch of Highway 126, according to the Road Safety Assessment. Average daily traffic and truck counts are both expected to increase with the proposed developments at Newhall Ranch (21,000 dwelling units) and possibly at Limoneira East (up to 1,500 dwelling units).
The Road Safety Assessment and Comeaux also pointed out that traffic along this corridor comes from three primary uses: agriculture, residential and the through traffic traveling between I-5 and the Pacific Coast, crossing through the cities of Santa Paula and Fillmore. State Route 126 is also a designated bike route.
“There are slow-moving agricultural vehicles, including some pulling long trailers, that drive onto and off of Highway 126 as they travel to and from the adjoining agricultural properties, which range from tree nursery businesses to large and small farming operations,” Comeaux said.
When speeding cars come upon slower-moving agricultural vehicles — including agricultural vehicles with trailers making slow, wide, sweeping turns into or out of narrow driveways on agricultural land — there can be collisions with tragic results.
“To address concerns regarding cross-median collisions and fatalities, Caltrans initiated a median-barrier project, reduced the posted speed limit, installed speed feedback signs and rumble strips, and requested the Road Safety Assessment with the Federal Highway Administration,” Comeaux said. “Although accident rates have improved since the installation of these measures, a median barrier and other measures have been recommended to enhance safety.”
One possible design option is a concrete median barrier. Another is a raised median island with visual markers.
“Various factors must be taken into account,” Comeaux said.
For example, a median-barrier significantly reduces the places where drivers can make left turns.
“That could reduce collisions — but then how would drivers get where they want to go?” Comeaux said. “If they can’t make left turns, they will have to drive some distance to a place where they can make a U-turn and come back to make a right turn.”
So as part of a possible median barrier project, Caltrans is considering building four roundabouts that would be spaced along Highway 126 to give drivers convenient places to make U-turns so they can go back to where they want to go.
“Caltrans is taking into consideration many comments received from the public regarding potential impacts if such roundabouts are built,” Comeaux said. “Those concerns range from the land acquisitions needed for roundabouts, to whether there may be adverse traffic effects due to some drivers’ unfamiliarity with navigating in roundabouts.”
These modern roundabouts are different from old-style “traffic circles” and the kinds of “rotaries” seen in some other countries, he said.
“These modern roundabouts are gaining popularity in other areas of the U.S. for many reasons, including the fact that they are associated with significant reductions in serious collisions and injuries, and are easy to navigate after drivers receive some basic information about them,” Comeaux said.
The current study that Caltrans is conducting is expected to produce a draft environmental document in approximately spring 2017; and a final environmental document before the end of 2017.
“If construction occurs, it could be in 2019, based on current estimates,” Comeaux said. “That’s not certain, and a no-build option remains a possibility.”
“The question now that’s being reviewed carefully is what we can do to improve the road, and I know Caltrans has undertaken a study for improvement,” Sen. Jackson said. “They’re drafting an environmental assessment and impact report that will include a number of recommendations. They’ve also listened to community feedback, which is very important, and they continue to solicit that feedback.”
It’s Jackson’s hope that the property owners along the route will respond.
“Apparently there’s some reluctance … because there’s desire to do some surveying around the area and the surveys are needed,” Jackson said. “Caltrans wants to release the (environmental impact report) for the public to review some time next summer. But they need the help of the property owners to do their land surveys. So we want to encourage those folks to help out to reduce the danger of driving along that road.”