In the wake of August’s horrific accident during which a truck descending down Highway 154 lost its brakes and slammed into a home, killing three people inside — and in light of the higher than normal number of fatalities this year on the windy road — state and local officials are ramping up efforts to keep the roadways safe.
Thursday, the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG), comprised of the five members of the Board of Supervisors and a representative from each of the councils of the county’s cities, asked for a report from the California Highway Patrol and Caltrans on what can be done to ensure the safety of travelers on the highway.
“It really struck a chord in the community,” said 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr of the rig accident. That’s why she, along with 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf called for the public hearing.
The highway, over the years, has seen increased usage, according to CHP Capt. Jeff Sgobba, which leads to increased hazards. Many factors could be behind the increase in traffic on the highway, Sgobba said, from the jump in winery tourism to the economic downturn, leading people to go on vacations closer to home. He also mentioned increased usage of Google Maps and GPS that sometimes tell drivers to use the highway as a more direct route.
Steve Price, the Caltrans district’s deputy director for maintenance and operations, said the agency, along with the CHP, go by the three Es — enforcement, education, and engineering — when talking about highway safety. Caltrans intends to groove rumble strips on the center line when paving is complete, and will be putting in larger — and more numerous — signs along the road to remind truckers that Highway 154 isn’t for large trucks, instead recommending trucks take the 101. Additionally, said district director Rich Krumholz, $28 million in Measure D money has been spent over the years on Highway 154.
Nationally, 93 percent of all accidents have a primary or secondary human factor, while 3 percent are attributed to highway facilities. That’s where the education comes in. In the 10 years leading up to August’s fatal collision, he said, there have been five unsafe speed truck collisions with no fatalities. In the same time period, there have been 47 truck-related collisions, resulting in 16 injuries and two fatalities. Of the total collisions, one-third of them were DUI related. In the last five years the highway has averaged 94 collisions per year. This year, the number of fatalities is up, with seven total thus far.
The primary factors behind truck-involved collisions are unsafe speeds and turning movements, especially at the curve near San Antonio Creek Road.
“Highway 154 is a windy mountain roadway and unfortunately we have drivers driving like they’re still driving on an interstate highway,” said CHP Coastal Division Assistant Chief Scott Howland, noting on his trip to the meeting Thursday morning he saw drivers on their cell phones, reading, and brushing their teeth. “Drivers are doing everything but paying attention.”
One of the biggest issues, officials told the board Thursday, is public awareness and education. CHP officials have met with representatives at the local quarries, and are installing signs at the quarry near the scales and at the exit, reminding drivers to inspect their vehicles before getting on the road. As well, they are giving safety presentations at multiple facilities, and have reached out to the California Truckers Association.
The CHP has increased inspections near Cathedral Oaks, before trucks ascend onto Highway 154, and has adjusted staffing deployments for increased commercial patrol. DUI checkpoints will also continue. The law enforcement agency has also applied for a grant from the Office of Traffic Safety, looking for money to provide additional enforcement as well as more public service announcements.
They intend to talk to Google Maps, according to Sgobba, and other mapping agencies, to inform them that many times Highway 154 is not the fastest or safest route for truckers to take.
The maximum length for trucks is 65 feet total for tractor and trailer combined, while for double trailers the maximum length is 75 feet. Many vehicles stopped by CHP officer are over that length.
The truck involved in the August incident was carrying 80,000 pounds of total weight. Caltrans’s Steve Price said Highway 154 was a tricky place for weigh stations or truck escape ramps, mostly because of space. Truck escape ramps are usually installed when there are four runaway trucks in a three-year period, he said, a rarity, as usually there is some form of driver error involved. “There’s not that high of a frequency of runaway brakes,” he said of Highway 154. Only 25 percent of runaway trucks hit the ramps, and properly locating a ramp where a driver can identify it and safely navigate the ramp, all with enough room to eventually allow towing machinery to haul the truck out of the gravel, can be a more difficult task than many people realize.
“This is not an average road,” Farr said. “There are so many places you just don’t have an out.”
She will be part of a subcommittee the board voted to initiate Thursday, that, among other things, will be looking into initiating a legislative process to ban hazardous materials and further restrict the size and weight of trucks. Farr will be joined by Wolf and Goleta City Councilmember Roger Aceves as part of the subcommittee.
As for the August incident, authorities are still investigating whether or not to charge the driver criminally. Senior Deputy District Attorney Jim Kreyger said the CHP had brought in some, but not all, reports, and thus he did not have a firm date on when a decision would be made.