After the latest fatality on Highway 17, Caltrans will speed up a safety study on Highway 17 to extend a median barrier at Laurel Curve. The California Highway Patrol had repeatedly requested the barrier be extended.
“We’ll consider all options,” Caltrans spokesman Colin Jones said Monday. “Everything is on the table.”
CalTrans has recently began to look again at what further safety improvements can be made at the sharp curve, which ranks as the most dangerous stretch of this mountain highway from Los Gatos to Santa Cruz. Despite a one-third reduction in crashes over the past decade after the spending of more than $100 million for roadway upgrades, increased police patrols and a public-relations campaign, crashes have soared at Laurel.
“The injury collisions there are horrific, because they often are head-on,” CHP spokeswoman Sarah Jackson said.
From 2004 to 2010, one in every four accidents on the Santa Cruz County side of the highway occurred at Laurel Curve. And in the first nine months of 2010, about 150 crashes occurred there, compared with 70 the year before.
The latest took place Friday at 10:43 a.m., when Gerard Wener, 57, was headed south and lost control of his gray 2005 Nissan Altima in the rain, veered across the narrow gap and sideswiped a maroon Suburban driven by a Felton man in the northbound lanes.
Wener’s car spun out of control, and the rear was hit by a Toyota 4 Runner with a Scotts Valley family of three inside. The 4 Runner then hit the side of a silver Acura driven by a San Jose man. Wener was killed instantly. Everyone else escaped with minor or no injuries.
The crash came just a couple of weeks after a nine-car pileup at Laurel that began when an elderly driver mistakenly hit his accelerator as he tried to brake entering the southbound curve.
The CHP has asked for years that a median barrier be installed here, and it renewed the call Monday. The same request was made March 7 at a safety meeting involving state and regional officials.
Caltrans announced at that meeting that it will repave a small section of the curve in a few weeks with an experimental sandpaper-type surface that helps prevent skidding and throws off a noisy vibration that often slows drivers down. In addition, an electronic sign will be installed showing the speed of vehicles as they approach the dangerous curve.
But Caltrans has been reluctant to close the gap in the median barrier that separates most of the highway’s northbound and southbound lanes. Jones said the state worries that closing access to Laurel Road will lead drivers to make risky U-turns at other openings to head in the direction they wish to go.
“If we close the opening, what do motorists do then?” Jones said. “Do they go up and make an unsafe U-turn or something? We don’t want to cause more accidents than we solve.”
But the CHP‘s Jackson said officers see only a handful of drivers coming out of Laurel Road onto 17.
“It’s a rarely used turnout,” she said. “Compare that to the thousands and thousands who are on the highway. That’s why we’ve requested a median barrier.”
Temporary and movable median barriers have been used on 17 at construction areas near Vine Hill Road and north of the Summit. Jackson said it might be worth testing those barriers at Laurel for a year to see what impact they would have.
Luis Mendez, deputy director of the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission and a member of the Safe on 17 traffic group, said, “We definitely want to see fewer collisions and need to see if a median barrier will do the trick. I don’t know how much of an effort it would take to install a temporary barrier, but I think we should give it a try.”
Wener’s death was the first on Highway 17 since 2010. Longtime Highway 17 watchers like Mendez say 2011 might have been the first year no one was killed on 17 since the highway opened during the Depression.
“That wouldn’t surprise me at all,” he said. “We all know how dangerous the highway has been.”
The latest tragedy has also drawn pleas from the public to install a barrier. Marissa Maciel, of Santa Cruz, said she was saddened and frustrated to learn of Wener’s death.
“Caltrans knows what would fix the problem with this curve, and it seems like there is no willingness to do it,” she said. “Close the gap; extend the barricade.
“The objections to closing the access do not outweigh the lives, money and pain that drivers experience when there are accidents at the curve.”
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