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Braving the ‘Palmdale 500’ : Traffic: Mountain routes lure commuters from the congested freeway. With them come more accidents.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Locals call it the “Palmdale 500"--a high-speed race through Angeles National Forest, snaking along narrow canyon roads and in some places coming perilously close to 1,000-foot drops.

But this is no sanctioned racing event. This is the daily commute.

Mountain roads such as the Angeles Forest and Angeles Crest highways, Big Tujunga Canyon Road and Sierra Highway have increasingly become the preferred commuter routes for Antelope Valley motorists trying to avoid the traffic jams that have developed on the Antelope Valley Freeway.

On the two most heavily used roads, Angeles Crest and Angeles Forest highways, the number of cars using the roads daily increased by 129% from 1,529 in 1989 to 3,500 in 1990, according to a study last year by the California Highway Patrol.

And as more motorists have chosen the quicker but more dangerous routes through the forest, the number of traffic accidents has increased. CHP officials said the number of collisions has grown by 160% since 1988.

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Last year alone, there were 140 accidents on Angeles Crest and Angeles Forest highways and Big Tujunga Canyon Road, resulting in two deaths and 102 injuries, CHP officials reported.

Commuters race along the canyon roads during morning and afternoon rush hours at speeds of up to 80 m.p.h., say residents and CHP officials. Often they try to pass one another on blind curves. Many times they don’t succeed.

The increased traffic can be attributed to the population boom in Lancaster and Palmdale, which was the fastest growing city in California from 1980 to 1990, according to a report by a Palo Alto-based private research group. The population in Palmdale grew 360% from 12,277 to 56,476 during that 10-year period.

Motorists traveling from the Antelope Valley to the San Fernando Valley can save up to an hour by taking the canyon roads. But the canyon routes--which are mostly two-lane roads--are fraught with dangers such as rockslides, ice, snow and animals that cross motorists’ path.

Some residents of Angeles National Forest say they come across accident scenes almost monthly.

“There are so many skid marks on the highway, I couldn’t tell you how many accidents there have been,” said Bill Bagwell, a gold miner who has lived near Angeles Crest Highway for more than 20 years.

Commuters from Palmdale and Lancaster began to take the alternate routes in greater numbers about three years ago to avoid the Antelope Valley Freeway. The number of vehicles using the freeway each day--counted at a point just south of Palmdale--has increased by 110% from 36,500 in 1987 to 77,000 in 1990, according to the CHP.

Traffic on the freeway becomes worse as motorists travel south and join up with commuters from such communities as Acton, Agua Dulce, Canyon Country and Santa Clarita. At the interchange with the Golden State Freeway, the freeway carries 118,000 vehicles per day.

State transportation officials have approved a widening project for the Antelope Valley Freeway from San Fernando Road in Santa Clarita to Lancaster. The project would add one lane in each direction. But construction on the first phase of the project is not scheduled to begin until late 1995.

CHP Officer Richard Obregon, who patrols the forest, said the worst traffic on the canyon roads is in the morning because commuters try to get to work at about the same time, between 8 and 9 a.m. At night, the traffic is spread out between 5 and 8 p.m., he said.

“The primary collision factor is speed,” Obregon said. “They also follow too closely and do not allow a safety cushion on curves. They pass regardless; they pass on curves.

“We have stopped people with radar up there who were going in excess of 80 m.p.h., which is very dangerous.”

He said the traffic problem on the canyon roads decreases slightly during the winter months because commuters want to avoid the ice and snow on the roadways.

Obregon said the CHP conducts crackdowns on speeders on canyon roads nearly twice a month. During these operations, two or three patrol cars equipped with radar guns position themselves at the most dangerous sections of the roads. The CHP cites between 30 and 60 motorists during each operation, he said.

Most of the traffic citations are for such offenses as driving recklessly or passing on a double yellow line, Obregon said. On most of the canyon roads there is no posted speed limit, except on hairpin turns.

“People don’t realize that a very simple roadway can be a killer,” he said.

One woman who accidentally drove off Angeles Crest Highway and into a canyon about three years ago was not found until a year later when heavy rains washed away brush and debris concealing her car, Obregon said.

Longtime residents along the canyon roads said they fear using the main roadways during rush hours.

“As soon as I see someone come up on me, I just pull over because I don’t want to get into an accident,” said Bob Solis, the dam keeper at Big Tujunga Dam.

Jim Lewis, who manages the Hidden Springs Cafe along Angeles Crest Highway, said he crashed 12 years ago trying to take a curve at more than 50 m.p.h. He suffered only minor injuries but said he will not forget the lesson he learned.

“I drive the road at 40 m.p.h. now,” he said. “I learned a long time ago that the mountain always wins.”


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