Highways 101 and 154 are not listed among the 10 most dangerous California roads, but you’d have a hard time convincing local drivers of that, especially folks living in North County.
The reason is fairly obvious — North County residents have only three choices for traveling down to the South Coast.
First, you can zip down Highway 101 to the nexus with 154, make a left and wind your way through the Santa Ynez Valley, around the edge of Lake Cachuma, across the Cold Spring Bridge, peak out at San Marcos Pass, then the long twisting two-lane descent into the Goleta Valley.
Some of the route is truly breathtaking. Some of it is perilous beyond words. And often visibility on 154 is near zero when the marine layer shrouds the hills and dales. The results all too often are grinding, metal-on-metal crashes, usually maiming or killing motorists.
Option No. 2 for North County commuters is zipping straight down Highway 101. This route is also breathtakingly beautiful, with unmatched views of the glimmering Pacific Ocean — but also subject to zero-visibility conditions when the fog rolls in, and it’s considerably longer than the Highway 154 shortcut. And the 101 has its share of serious accidents, rollovers, injuries, deaths and traffic tie-ups.
The third option is, don’t drive down to the South Coast, at all. Confine your brushes with commerce to North County businesses.
Caltrans keeps tweaking the Highway 154 option, with mixed success. Limiting the kinds of vehicles allowed on the road helps, as do speed-limit postings on 154’s more treacherous curves. But the truth is that since construction of the 101, the 154 has been the preferred short-cut for motorists — private and commercial — heading to the upper reaches of the Central Coast and coastal California.
The 101 option just got a bit safer, with Caltrans announcing completion of a realignment project of northbound freeway lanes, generally from Mariposa Reina to near the southern edge of the Gaviota rest stop. If you liked watching vehicular mayhem, the rest stop was the place to be, as vehicles make an abrupt exit into the area, then re-emerge into a flow of speeding traffic.
The Gaviota curve has been the scene of numerous crashes over the years, and its collision rate has been five times higher than the statewide average for similar road conditions. The realignment just completed should help lower those numbers, but it took $7 million taxpayer dollars to smooth out some of the more dangerous curves.
Caltrans doing its best to make conditions safer for motorists is noble, but it also happens to be that state agency’s main mission. There is, however, another component to safer highways, and it involves all of us, the drivers.
North County drivers are oh-so-familiar with the Highway 154 dodge-a-vehicle syndrome. It happens as cars coming at you going in the opposite direction drift across the center line, and you are required to take evasive action to avoid a head-on catastrophe.
Usually the drift is caused by inattention or bad driving. Just a few of the perils inherent in navigating a curvy, two-lane highway allowing relatively high speeds. Lots of folks are in a hurry to enjoy the many wonders of the Santa Ynez Valley and North County. Who can blame them?
But a peek at Cachuma Lake, the mountains or trying to thumb out a text message response are recipes for vehicular disaster, and avoidable.
The roads are what they are. We need to be better drivers.