'Why is it we never see a police car up there on the Ortega until after something happens?' : Dangers of Ortega Route Leave Mark on Motorists

Times Staff Writer

Some of them play a grim little game twice a day on their way to and from work by counting the telltale signs of new accidents--ashes left over from warning flares, bits of metal and glass, angry skid marks--that happened since they passed that way a few hours earlier.

At least one is under a doctor's care for stress.

Another has heard the seemingly endless screams of a person trapped in a mangled vehicle, covered with blood and yelling for God.

They use the scenic Ortega Highway, with its vistas of mountains and canyons, to commute from homes in Riverside County to jobs in southern Orange County.

And all of the commuters wonder, "Why is it we never see a police car up there on the Ortega until after something happens?"

Financial Reasons Cited

Most of them, like William McMillen, 58, and his wife, Norma, chose to live in Lake Elsinore or other Riverside County communities for financial reasons: "Housing prices and taxes are too high in Orange County, and there aren't enough good jobs in Riverside County."

No one is sure how many daily commuters there are on Ortega Highway, but after many months of making the round-trip journey himself, R.J. Palacios, 33, another Riverside County resident, says there are probably more than 100 "regulars" on the road to Orange County every morning, and about an equal number--mostly carpenters or construction workers, judging from their vehicles--going the other way. Then, of course, they switch directions at night.

But his estimate is likely to be short. An overall traffic count, including commuters, sightseers and all others, has been compiled by a Caltrans engineer, Charles H. Christopher. Although 1984 figures are not yet complete, Christoper said that in 1983, 3,500 vehicles a day traversed the full distance of about 25 miles from Interstate 5 in San Juan Capistrano to Grand Avenue at the foot of the mountains on the Lake Elsinore side, an increase of 500 per day over the year before.

The traffic flow goes up dramatically--22,000 per day in 1983--along the two or three miles immediately east of San Juan Capistrano, where housing and business developments are sprouting up.

However, Christopher said, that portion of the road has been widened to 28 feet, is well marked and has several traffic lights. In 1988, he said, plans call for widening that stretch, plus a couple of more miles to a gravel quarry turnoff, to 40 feet.

Beyond that, the road will remain 22 feet wide, rated by Caltrans as a "two-lane rural road," but one that, Christopher said, has twice as many accidents as the statewide average for two-lane rural roads, and four times as many fatalities.

The slaughter and suffering are recorded more graphically by the California Highway Patrol.

Relatively Level Roadway

The line dividing Orange and Riverside counties cuts the Ortega (California 74) about 14 miles northeast of Interstate 5, a stretch of relatively level roadway with gentle curves and a speed limit in most places of 55 m.p.h. It is under jurisdiction of the CHP office in south Orange County, and Officer Ken Daily said that in 1984 there were 87 accidents reported there, with 95 people injured and four killed.

Just beyond the county line, the road begins to change as it cuts into the sides of sheer cliffs, with San Juan Creek far below, and curves sharply, with many twists and turns hidden by brush and the shoulders of the bluffs.

Riverside CHP Officer John Anderson recorded 88 accidents on that stretch in 1984, leaving 55 injured and eight dead.

Both officers said motorcycles were involved in about one-third of all accidents.

Debby Messemore, who works at Endevco, a large San Juan Capistrano manufacturing firm, lives in Lake Elsinore. She has been commuting since 1979.

"My husband knows what time I should be home from work," she said. "If I'm not home by 7 p.m., he comes looking for me because he knows the things that happen.

"The Ortega is not the culprit. It is really a beautiful road . . . but the lack of consideration by many drivers and the lack of regular patrols by the CHP are some of the main problems I see," she said.

In addition to traffic accidents, Messemore said, "you have people being raped, robbed and murdered and thrown over the cliff. You have kamikaze motorcycles, cars practicing for a road race in France. But why is it you never see a police car up there until after something happens?"

No Routine Patrol

She said most people know there is no routine patrol, so they know where to go "to do these things and not get caught."

Palacios, who lives in Sunnymede with his wife and three children, agreed with Messemore that the road itself "is fairly safe."

However, he believes that the lack of patrols, thoughtlessness or rudeness of many drivers--"some guys in a pickup threw beer cans at me"--and the reluctance of some slow drivers to use turnouts on the narrow, twisting parts of the highway, cause most of the problems.

"Let's be more courteous to each other," he said. "I for one would not like to live with the thought that I created an accident with someone injured or killed."

Unsafe for Walking

He said that at night "it's pitch black up there, and totally unsafe to walk for help." He would like to see emergency telephones installed at regular intervals, "because now there are only two or three, far apart and not always available, like at ranger stations and Caspers (Wilderness) Park. What happens when a woman with kids is stranded?"

Dottie Papin-Griffith has an idea of what happens to stranded drivers.

She and her husband, Will Griffith, live in Lake Elsinore and commute together to their jobs at Endevco.

"Our car broke down one day," she said "We sat for 45 minutes before a man stopped. No cops at all. The man who stopped said the only reason he did was that he knew what it was like; he had broken down himself about a week earlier and didn't get help for a long time. After he went somewhere and called a mechanic, it was another hour and a half before we got going."

Involved in Accident

The Griffiths were involved in one of the many accidents on Ortega last year. Even now, neither of them seems too sure about what happened, except that the car ahead of them tried to pass one that had slowed or stopped, and met a car coming the other way.

"All four cars were involved," she said. "We got out with some scrapes and bruises."

"That accident slowed me down," her husband said. "I'll admit, I probably was overdriving before.

"There's a saying around here, that if you make it to work, you've done a good job."

They have a 4-year-old son who stays at home with his grandmother.

Calls Home When Late

"He's too young to really worry about us, but it's gotten so that we call home even if we're just going to be a very few minutes late," Papin-Griffith said.

Henrietta Guerra brings her 17-month-old son from Lake Elsinore to stay with a baby sitter while she is at work.

"Maybe there was a time when the Ortega was a scenic, restful drive, but not now" she said. "Regular drivers like myself spend 40 to 45 minutes every morning worrying about accidents, building up anger at other drivers, both slow and fast, and knowing that we have to do it all over again that same evening.

"People driving the road must become more considerate of each other."

Condition of Turnouts

Like all the others who talked about the two-lane road, which has no passing lanes over most of its length, Janie McLean is upset about the condition of the turn-outs provided for slower drivers or sightseers. Her husband, Lee, works in Mission Viejo and drops her off in San Juan Capistrano. They live in El Cariso Village, near the upper end of Ortega.

"The big frustration is those turnouts," she said. "They're not paved and most of them aren't marked ahead around curves to let you know they're coming up, and a lot of people are reluctant to turn off onto gravel, with a drop-off from the pavement, when they're going 40 or 45.

"You just can't do it safely, and you have to worry about getting back on the road. Two of my friends have been in accidents on the Ortega. One lost an ear."

Christopher of Caltrans said there are no plans at present to pave turnouts, and that signs "are put up frequently, and just as frequently torn down or stolen. It's amazing how many signs are missing."

Matter of Manpower

On the question of patrolling the highway, CHP spokesmen said it basically is a matter of manpower shortages and demands for services on more heavily traveled freeways and highways.

On the Orange County side, Officer Daily said "commuter traffic during the week doesn't justify regular patrolling (on the Ortega)."

In the south part of the county, he said, extremely heavy commuter traffic is clogging Interstate 5 (the San Diego Freeway) as well as main roads in Mission Viejo, El Toro and other sections during the morning and evening rush hours.

"On our morning shift, we have only six or sometimes eight units (patrol cars) for the entire south county, 450 square miles and 20 miles of freeway," he said. "On the afternoon shift we have 10 units, so there is a manpower problem during commuting hours."

Shortage of Patrol

In Riverside County, Officer Anderson said the same shortage of patrol units exists there, and that "Ortega just doesn't have the volume" of commuter traffic to justify regular patrols.

But both CHP officers say it does have more than its share of grisly accidents.

"When you have one up there, it's almost sure to be a bad one," Daily said.

And on that, at least, William McMillen and his wife, Norma, can agree.

"We've been commuting for six years," McMillen said. "I've been an eyewitness to four crashes and I've seen the remains of many, many others.

Screaming for 2 Hours

"One kid was trapped in his wreck, covered with blood and yelling for God. You could hardly see him in the wreckage and he was screaming and carrying on for more than two hours.

"In this case, the Fire Department and the police were there in about half an hour. It took them the rest of the time to cut him out. I don't know if he lived."

His wife said each time she sees evidence that there's been another wreck, "it stays with me a long time, and it has all affected my life. I'm going to a doctor now for stress tests. I've lived with it a long time and it's just getting worse."

McMillen stared up at the corner of the room in an office at Endevco.

"We play a little game, coming and going. We look for signs of new accidents," he said. "It's a hell of a game to play. There's always something new."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World