Crackdown on Route 39: Drunk Drivers' Deadly Trail

Times Staff Writer

Last month, Janet Fixico was driving down California 39 after spending a warm sunny Sunday morning in San Gabriel Canyon. She and six others--family and friends--were among the thousands of people who visit this Angeles National Forest recreation area north of Azusa each weekend.

Just north of Morris Dam, the 26-year old Bell woman lost control of her car and plunged over a 30-foot embankment, killing herself and two passengers, Daniel Pablo, 12, also of Bell, and Leo Shot, 26, of Cudahy, California Highway Patrol officials said. Two of the four other passengers in the car were seriously injured.

A post-mortem medical examination showed that Fixico had been drinking that morning and had a blood alcohol level of .11 when tested after the accident. A driver is considered legally intoxicated at .10.

Authorities say that driving under the influence is all too common among motorists on the narrow, winding, 25-mile stretch of California 39 that runs through San Gabriel Canyon. An estimated 90% of the accidents occur as drivers are leaving the canyon, headed south, authorities added.

"It's more of a risk in the evening when everyone is getting tired and they have had plenty to drink," said Manuel Padilla, public information officer with the CHP's Baldwin Park office. "It's hard enough to drive down sober, let alone drunk."

The estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people who drive up into the canyon each weekend travel a road lined with chaparral and oak. Along the road are two reservoirs, an off-road-vehicle area, a legal shooting area, and, near the top, Crystal Lake, open to campers and fishermen.

Views are spectacular, with cliffs and valleys unfolding far below. But the natural beauty is diminished by the never-ending trail of debris--mostly beer cans and liquor bottles--discarded along the road.

Ten people, including 18-year-old Richard S. Davis of Los Alamitos, who was killed Monday, have died on California 39 this year. Six of those deaths involved drivers under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the CHP said.

Authorities are still investigating the accident in which Davis, who was riding in the back of a truck, was killed. The driver, James Suttles, also of Los Alamitos, and three other passengers were hospitalized with serious injuries.

There have been 60 accidents on the road this year, 23 of them alcohol- or drug-related, authorities said. Of the 119 accidents on the road last year, 40 involved alcohol or drugs.

According to the California Department of Transportation, which maintains the road under a special-use permit from the U.S. Forest Service, there were three times as many accidents in 1984 on California 39 as the state average for other similar roads. And there were almost twice as many alcohol- or drug-related accidents on the route as on other California mountain roads.

"It's not the road, it's the drivers who have had too much to drink coming down the hill," said Capt. Dave Helsel, commander of the CHP Baldwin Park office.

Federal, state and county officials agree that the number of accidents and fatalities is disproportionately high, and efforts are being made to crack down on drunk drivers.

The Forest Service has begun to enforce a new ban on alcohol in the 200-acre, off-road-vehicle area just off California 39 north of the San Gabriel Dam, and the CHP has stepped up patrols in the canyon. To calm things down during the summer, the Forest Service and CHP cooperated with the county Sheriff's Department in conducting periodic law-enforcement sweeps of the area.

During seven special "maximum enforcement periods," sheriff's deputies, the CHP and Forest Service personnel pooled resources, patrolling the area with up to 35 officers on busy weekends.

Officers using a mobile booking unit arrested 109 violators, 25 of them for drunk driving, during two evening operations.

However, California 39's problems go beyond drunk drivers.

The road, which runs through Azusa and terminates near Crystal Lake, is heavily traveled on weekends and is often congested with urban dwellers who crowd into the area on motorcycles and in cars, vans, recreational vehicles and trucks.

On three occasions this summer, traffic got so bad that the canyon had to be closed to incoming vehicles shortly after noon to ease congestion.

"We don't mind the people going up there to enjoy themselves--it's a kind of local resort--but they are going up there in numbers that are not safe," said the CHP's Padilla.

Traffic problems are compounded by the confusing tangle of agencies that attempts to enforce the law.

For example, the Forest Service, which enforces only federal regulations, cannot issue citations for drunk driving, which is covered under the state Motor Vehicle Code. And the CHP, which can cite for drunk driving on California 39, cannot go after offenders in the off-road vehicle area, which is under the Forest Service's jurisdiction.

Frustrating Situation

"It's frustrating to try to do something about it," said Henry Hazen III, deputy forest supervisor of Angeles National Forest. Hazen said that the agencies cooperate, at times detaining suspects until an officer authorized to issue the proper citation arrives.

The most recent effort to crack down on drunk driving involves the ban on alcohol in the off-road-vehicle area, where an average of 2,700 vehicles are driven each weekend. Drinking is commonplace in this area, which is called "the pit" by law enforcement officers.

"There has been a lot of illegal activity, a lot of partying there," Hazen said. He signed the order banning alcohol in the off-road-vehicle area June 28, but said that authorities have not routinely enforced it.

William Woodland, a Forest Service recreation resource officer, said agencies are purposely going slow in putting teeth into the ban.

Enforcement Tool

"When you have people who have been coming here since 1971 and drinking, you're talking about a social change," he said. "We don't expect to clean up the area as clean as a Quaker meeting house. This code just gives us another enforcement tool."

Although the ban went into effect in June, Donald Stikkers, district ranger of the Mt. Baldy District, said it will be more strictly enforced after the public is made aware of it through an educational program scheduled to begin in the next two months.

He said that signs alerting visitors to the alcohol ban will be posted in the off-road vehicle area and the new rules will be explained in a brochure and listed on the $2 permits required to visit the area.

Stikkers said that although the main reason for the ban is to control drunk driving in the off-road area, it could have a significant effect on the number of accidents along California 39, which is the road most people use to get into the off-road-vehicle area.

In addition to the alcohol ban, law-enforcement agencies are stepping up patrols along the route. The CHP's Helsel said that as many as seven extra patrol cars traveled the highway during the busy summer and holiday weekends.

For the first time, the CHP will add occasional patrols along California 39 during winter weekends when traffic is especially heavy.

Sheriff's Lt. George Galeener of the San Dimas substation said that some people go up to the mountain to escape law and order.

"The patrols let the people who go up there to drink know that we are enforcing the area," said Galeener.

"Maybe if they see us here, they'll think twice about drinking and then jumping in the car," said CHP officer Dennis Frias, who regularly patrols the road.

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