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Shortcut to Freeway Interchange Poses Own Hazards

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It may have been jolting, but for Jeff Baxter, the sound of crunching metal and screeching tires outside his Encino hills home Monday morning was hardly a surprise.

A teen-ager on the way to school had lost control of the BMW she was driving and careened into the path of oncoming traffic on Calneva Drive.

Monday’s accident was the fifth in the last two weeks at the same location--a permanent wet spot covered with a fine, mossy-like substance that, he and his neighbors say, creates a hazard difficult to avoid as motorists accelerate to climb the hill.

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Last week, two Mercedes-Benz autos collided at the spot, sending one driver to the hospital. Last year, one neighbor discovered that a car had skidded off the road and rammed into his house. The Baxters themselves have lost three brick mailboxes to accidents since 1991.

At least seven accidents in the last year have occurred on Calneva, a heavily traveled shortcut used by motorists to avoid the congested interchange of the San Diego and Ventura freeways on trips between the West Valley and the Westside.

A 1991 Caltrans study found that 69% of the morning rush-hour trips through the area are made by motorists using shortcuts over the Santa Monica Mountains.

Los Angeles Fire Department Capt. Craig Fletcher says he has seen enough. Despite the road’s sharp curves and steep grades and fast-driving commuters, the accidents are no accident, he said.

“Lightning doesn’t strike six times,” he said. “When you’ve got four accidents all within a short time, all within 100 feet, it causes attention to be drawn to the fact that a hazardous condition exists.”

Fletcher said that as he was investigating the scene last week, after the two Mercedes collided, “I was slipping myself as I walked up the street.”

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Fletcher called the office of Los Angeles City Councilman Marvin Braude, who represents the Encino hills neighborhood. Rosalind Wayman, a field deputy in Braude’s Valley office, said she has received “consistent complaints” about accidents on Calneva Drive for the past six months, but that the issue of “the wet spot” has only evolved within the past 10 days.

“It’s a frustrating situation for those constituents,” she said. “But at the same time, there are no easy answers.”

Wayman said she and transportation officials met with neighbors in November to discuss the problem of speeders on the street, and that remedies such as speed bumps and warning signs are still being considered.

The steep grade of the hill made stop signs impractical for the area, Wayman said. Motorists driving too fast for conditions are at the root of the problem, she said.

“People speed on that street, “ she said. “That’s the bottom line here.”

Neil Spiva, a supervisor with the city’s street maintenance department, concurred after an examination Monday morning.

“It’s slightly mossy--there’s a little buildup,” he said. “But the problem, I feel, is the excess speed.”

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The Baxters are not satisfied with the city’s response.

“We requested speed bumps, grooves, stop signs--whatever we could think of,” said Alix Baxter, whose husband, Jeff, attended the meeting. In the end, she said all she received was a letter stating that a sign would be installed banning trucks weighing more than 6,000 pounds from using the road.

“I’m outraged, really,” she said. “I think they’ve ignored a really serious problem. I’d hate to wait before somebody gets hurt really badly before something gets done.” Several of those who have crashed on the road agree with the Baxters.

“How could I have been (speeding)?” asked Louise O’Shea, who was injured Friday when she hit the spot and lost control of her 1969 Camaro. “There was a string of cars in front and behind; we were crawling. I can’t believe what happened.” O’Shea, a teacher, like many morning motorists was using the route as a shortcut to the San Diego Freeway.

“I put my foot on the accelerator, and I skidded,” she said. “I went completely to the other side of the road, into the bank, and a car coming from the opposite direction hit me.

“It’s so strange. That street must have some funny things on it. There’s something wrong there.”

Maria Young lives on Calneva Drive, and was thinking about the spot as she approached it last Monday.

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“I was going pretty slow,” Young said. “Then this Mercedes kind of waved and came right at me--and whoom! my hood turned into an accordion.”

Young’s husband, Guillermo, said the damage to the car is estimated at $20,000.

“I admit that people drive very fast,” Young said. “But it looks like the city doesn’t really care.”

Spiva, the streets official, said street maintenance crews will sand the area today and set up barricades with flashing lights farther down the hill to warn motorists of the slick spot. Earlier, barricades were assembled around the spot after Friday’s accident.

But for some, these moves may be too little, too late.

“I think we’re going to sue the city, “ said attorney Cory Schmissrauter, who would represent his mother, O’ Shea. “It’s a defective condition--a hazardous condition that they knew about.”

Don Muller, who got a call in New York in November only to be told that a runaway car had punched a $6,500 hole in his Calneva Drive house, said after the recent string of accidents, he’s ready to take action.

“I hate it. It’s scaring the hell out of us,” he said.

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