Scenic Routes Need Not Be Dangerous : Improvements Ought to Be Carried Out Sooner to Make Deadly Stretches Safer

Orange County's scenic roads can also be dangerous, winding as they do through breathtaking canyons and ravines. But despite a grim record of available accident statistics to back up needed road improvements, it's not always clear why more isn't being done--and sooner--to make some of these roads safer.

A huge out-of-court settlement involving a crash on the Ortega Highway, and the climbing injury and death toll on the scenic Laguna Canyon Road illustrate the need for extra safety measures on some of these roads.

Earlier this month, Caltrans agreed to pay $2 million to a motorist whose car skidded off the Ortega Highway and crashed into a deep ravine, which left him partially paralyzed. The agency has admitted no fault in the case, but at last is planning to install metal guard rails along dangerous parts of the road. Considering that the accident happened in 1990, and that crashes have occurred with predictable regularity since that time, this is a case of better late than never on the remedial action.

In fact, the site of the accident has been notorious for years, referred to as "Ricochet Alley" by the California Highway Patrol for its pinball perils. It has a sheer canyon wall on one side and a 200-foot ravine on another. More to the point, the entire heart-stopping stretch of the road, about 14 miles east of Interstate 5, last year alone had 87 accidents, two of them fatal. In 1991 there were 85 accidents, three fatal. The guard rails are welcome, but late considering the record.

Another deadly stretch in need of attention is Laguna Canyon Road, where a serious crash last week was the ninth accident in the last 11 months, and where five people have died since last May. Last week's accident was particularly hard to prevent, considering that police say one driver swerved into an opposing lane. There is also the question of excessive speeding on the road, which no realignment alone can remedy.

The county has indicated a willingness to spend up to $20 million for road realignment if only all parties with an interest in the road's beauty and safety can agree. And yet environmental concerns have led to scrapping and redrafting of several plans over years. These differences should be resolved.

In both the cases of Ortega Highway and Laguna Canyon Road, there are improvements in the offing or available. It makes sense that, in addition to better law enforcement to get people to slow down, those needed safety measures be taken sooner rather than later.

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