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Late last year, a 51-year-old Santa Barbara man was heading west on Highway 154 near Cachuma Lake. It was 7:15 p.m. on a Friday, and the weather was clear. According to witnesses, the driver was gunning his Lexus and trying to pass other cars along a bend of the two-lane road when he lost control and slammed broadside into an oak tree. He died at the scene. Officials said it was only dumb luck that no one else was hurt.
Community reaction matched what’s often expressed after a serious 154 crash — the highway is too dangerous, authorities aren’t protecting the good drivers from the bad ones, and the problem has gotten worse over the years.
“That used to be such a fun road to drive,” said one resident in an online forum. “Now it has become a deathtrap.” An op-ed after the incident referred to the rural route as a “carnage-strewn highway.”
But these claims also always raise a series of questions: How treacherous is the 154, really? How does its accident rate compare to other winding mountain passes? What are government leaders doing to address community concern? And is our fear of the danger based in reality, or are we influenced by bloody headlines and social media posts that agitate our anxieties and clog our memories?
Now that we’ve entered a new decade, and 10 full years of digitized collision data has become available, the Independent crunched the numbers in an attempt to answer these questions. This report combines what we discovered with interviews, research, and other new information. Click here for a searchable Google map with all 1,302 accidents from 2009 through 2019.
Data Doesn’t Lie
People like to say that Highway 154 is one of the deadliest roadways in the state. “Certain highways get branded as blood alley, difficult to drive,” said Colin Jones, a spokesperson for Caltrans, which, along with the California Highway Patrol (CHP) and the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG), manages the route. “But we base things on data, volume, and specifics on how a highway operates. … The 154 is actually a very safe and pleasurable mountain highway to drive — as long as people make smart decisions.”
For the 10-year period between September 2009 and September 2019, the collision rate along all 32 miles of Highway 154 between Los Olivos and Santa Barbara was 0.85 collisions per million vehicle miles traveled. For that same time period, the statewide average for similar two-lane routes was 0.78.
“Similar” routes, Jones explained, are other curvy two-lane roadways that see close to the same amount of traffic. He cited as examples Highway 166, which twists and turns over the Sierra Madre Mountains between Santa Maria and Bakersfield, and Highway 41, the famously tricky road that brings Southern California visitors to Yosemite. “But it’s never apples to apples,” he said.
Over the same 10 years, the collision rate on the Santa Barbara County stretch of Highway 101 between its northerly and southerly junctions with Highway 154 was 0.58 collisions per million vehicle miles traveled; the state average for similar four-lane routes was 0.54.
The average number of vehicles using Highway 154 ranges from 11,400 a day in the Los Olivos area to 14,000 vehicles further south near Stagecoach Road. In recent years, the volume on the 154 increased about 5 percent. During the same period, volumes on all state highways went up about 10 percent.
Bucking the common complaint that out-of-towners are at fault for most accidents, data shows that 52 percent of collisions were caused by Santa Barbara County residents. Of the drivers arrested for DUI north of Paradise Road, 67 percent were county residents; among DUI offenders south of Paradise, 60 percent were from Santa Barbara.
While it may feel like Highway 154 crashes are a daily occurrence, figures reveal collisions happen every 2.5 days on average. The majority are noninjury. The overall number of incidents, including fatal accidents and DUI incidents, has remained relatively steady over the last 10 years.
A disproportionate number of collisions, however, happen in April, May, and December, with higher numbers taking place Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, most commonly between 3 and 6 p.m.
Residents frequently assert that Highway 154 DUIs have gone up since vineyards started adding more tasting rooms and the Chumash Casino Resort began serving alcohol on its gaming floor in 2015. DUI-related collision and arrest data doesn’t seem to support those claims.
The overwhelming cause of collisions remains speeding and unsafe maneuvers.
Barriers to Movement
Officials acknowledge the latest outcry over 154, which included a petition with more than 2,000 signatures and prompted the creation of SBCAG’s Highway 154 Safety Committee in November, was spurred by recent high-profile incidents, including the deaths of a young mother and her two children in a fiery head-on crash near Cold Spring Bridge. They also point out, however, that the incident is being investigated as a homicide and likely not attributable to a hazardous road.
“People are rightfully concerned about safety,” said Supervisor Joan Hartmann, whose 3rd District covers most of the 154. “There is a perception that safety has declined, but data seems to indicate that, relative to vehicles miles traveled, safety has improved in recent years.”
Hartmann, who is now running for reelection, has fielded a particularly high number of complaints about trucks and other large vehicles that drive slowly but don’t use turnouts, causing frustrated motorists to make risky passing moves. Many residents would like to see a ban on all oversized vehicles. Caltrans says it can’t do that.
“Caltrans’s mission is to ‘provide a safe, sustainable, integrated, and efficient transportation system to enhance California’s economy and livability,’” the agency said in a prepared statement. “Trucking is a vital component of California’s economy, so it is important to balance safety with the need for accessibility.” The best it can do is encourage truckers to use Highway 101 instead of the 154, Caltrans said. Signage to that effect has been placed at the northerly interchange, and a new sign has been ordered for the south.
At the recommendation of Google and other mapping programs, truckers, commuters, and tourists alike often use Highway 154 to shave eight miles, or around 5-10 minutes, off their coastal drives, which increases traffic volume and congestion. SBCAG is frequently asked to talk to Google about diverting drivers to the 101 instead.
“The City of Buellton and the County of Santa Barbara have both attempted to contact Google regarding redirecting traffic, with no success,” the organization said. “These are public roads, and Google is a private company. Absent a legislative act to regulate Google and other mapping programs, the government and the public have no control over the dissemination of this information.”
Hartmann’s office also receives a lot of requests to lower the speed limit. But Santa Barbara officials warn that an attempt to do so could backfire. Speed limits, surprisingly, are set not by the government but by the drivers themselves. When Caltrans conducts a speed survey, it measures how fast the average highway user safely travels and then determines the proper mile-per-hour figure from there. If a new survey were ordered and Caltrans found that people actually drive faster than the current 55mph limit, it could be legally forced to raise the bar.
Similarly, concerned citizens often bring up the idea of installing a median barrier. Doing so, the CHP says, would raise the 154’s speed limit to 65 mph because it would then be classified as a divided highway per the California Vehicle Code.
A host of other ideas to slow people down and encourage better driving — including installing stop signs, making the highway a toll road, straightening curves and widening shoulders, and increasing fines — have been considered at various times over the last decade. But none of those ideas are feasible for legal, financial, or practical reasons, authorities claim.
Most everyone agrees, however, that CHP patrols help deter speeders, and the more patrols, the better. Consistently over the years, Santa Barbara County’s CHP offices had been awarded a big Office of Traffic Safety grant that covered nearly 1,600 extra patrol hours, but for reasons that remain unclear, Santa Barbara didn’t receive the grant this year.
“I don’t know why,” said Lt. James Frost. His office, he explained, is now working on getting approved for the October 1, 2020–September 30, 2021 funding cycle. Hartmann and State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson have both written letters of support.
Where opinions diverge at Santa Barbara’s leadership level is over the potential use of cameras to catch speeders. Automated Speed Enforcement (ASE) systems, as they’re called, have proved effective in other communities, but the CHP argues they have drawbacks. Cameras don’t catch people driving too slowly, the agency points out, and they can’t pick out the violations that an officer would notice during a stop, such as a suspended license or DUI. Moreover, the CHP says,
camera systems log license plate numbers and send citations to the vehicle’s owner, not the driver, which can create confusion.
Underlying the CHP’s resistance, officials suspect, is a fear that cameras will replace officers. The powerful CHP union has successfully lobbied against ASE systems in Northern California, including a proposed pilot program in San Francisco and San Jose, to the chagrin of local law enforcement there. Legislators and police chiefs routinely argue that cameras would be used to augment, not replace, officer patrols.
So, What Is Being Done?
While the agencies that oversee Highway 154 have a habit of saying no to some of these ideas, they can hardly be accused of sitting on their hands. Over the last 10 years, Caltrans has conducted more than 100 traffic investigations along the route, many of them initiated by public concerns. It has installed rumble strips, widened striping, added signs, put in passing lanes and turnouts, and built a roundabout at the Highway 246 intersection. Over the next two years, it will build another roundabout at the Edison/Baseline intersection in Santa Ynez and put down a high-friction surface treatment in certain spots to reduce collisions on rainy days. Caltrans estimates that will result in 127 fewer crashes over the next 10 years.
SBCAG, for its part, has partnered with the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians to study the traffic triangle formed by routes 101, 154, and 246. Two more roundabouts are likely to come out of the study, which is a year in and expected to take another six months to complete. A more immediate concern for SBCAG is the Highway 154/Roblar Avenue intersection near Los Olivos. Many residents feel it should be a four-way stop.
The CHP devotes as much time and resources to the 154 as it possibly can, explained Lt. Frost. It’s constantly fielding complaints and, when the budget allows, organizing special enforcement details. Just two weeks ago, for instance, after receiving calls of speeders near Paradise Road, officers staked out the area and wrote 37 tickets in just a couple of hours. “We try to be really responsive to the community,” he said.
But officers can’t be everywhere all the time, Frost went on. “People need to take responsibility and drive safe. Even when you don’t see a patrol car, drive the speed limit.” Just be smart — turn on your headlights, be extra vigilant in wet weather, and stay off your phone — and don’t be afraid to stop and call 9-1-1 if you spot a reckless driver, Frost said. An officer will wait for them down the road, or even head to their home. “We do that all the time,” he said.