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Collision Course : Scenic but Dangerous California 126 Throws Drivers a Curve

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Golden fields of zinnias glitter against ragged purple mountains, and century-old avocado trees throw shadows along the twists and turns of California 126.

The road’s shoulders are lined with giant flowering oleanders and eucalyptus trees, whose scent in the spring competes with fragrant sweet pea flowers and in autumn with the spicy-sweet perfume of red peppers.

Produce stands display peaches, pineapples, cantaloupes, watercress and tomatoes, luring weekend drivers off the road, which follows the Santa Clara Valley through Ventura County for 35 miles.

But despite the beauty, to drive along the 126 is to flirt with mortality.

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Between 1990 and 1994, 34 people died on California 126, according to the California Highway Patrol, which has not finished tabulating numbers for last year.

A two-lane, six-mile segment of the 126 known as “Blood Alley” averages one accident a week, CHP officials say, and has claimed dozens of lives.

The number of fatalities along Blood Alley, which stretches from east of Fillmore to Powell Road on the western edge of Piru, was 227% higher than the state average between 1992 and 1994, according to Stephen Pang, an engineer with the state Department of Transportation.

A slight curve that skirts a hill near Fish Hatchery Road, east of Fillmore, is Blood Alley’s darkest stretch. Most accidents there are head-on collisions, CHP records show.

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“There have been more accidents there than anywhere else on the highway,” said Fillmore Mayor Roger Campbell, who is also assistant chief of the Fillmore Volunteer Fire Department. “It’s like a gravitation that pulls people into the other lane.”

Tobey and Chub Bowers, who live in a yellow house atop the deadly hill, say they are often awakened at night by the sound of metal crashing into metal.

Eighteen people have been killed in hundreds of accidents during the 16 years the couple have lived there.

“It’s awful,” Tobey Bowers said. “There have been countless times when we wake up with the ‘bang, bang’ sounds of cars crashing.”

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“I think this stretch of the highway needs to be straightened up,” Chub Bowers said. “No one seems to know why, but when people drive by this hill, they seem to lose control of their vehicles.”

Even at less notorious spots, the story is similar. George Aguire, 95, has lived his entire life in a house 50 yards from California 126 near Piru, and says collisions are almost routine.

“Over the years, traffic has increased and so have accidents. It used to be that my heart would beat really fast when I heard the sounds of cars crashing, but now it’s just another sound,” said Aguire, who often has opened his door to accident victims. “People often knock asking to use the phone.”

CHP Officer Brian DeMatia, who patrolled California 126 for six years, says the highway itself should not be blamed for the accidents.

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He said commuters who live in Santa Clarita and work as far away as Santa Barbara tend to speed when they are running late. DeMatia said motorists who get behind farmers’ trucks sometimes get impatient and, in a rush to pass, speed up in a non-passing lane.

Other accidents, he said, are the fault of motorists who drink and drive.

Also, farmers who grow crops along the valley often have to make left turns in a two-lane stretch, causing traffic to stop.

“The 126 was originally designed as a rural road, but it has become a commuter zone where people drive like maniacs,” DeMatia said.

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Long before it was even a rural road, what is now California 126 was a footpath for 18th-century Spanish priests--the only route linking the San Fernando and San Buenaventura missions.

As settlers put down roots and established ranchos, the route became more traveled.

In the 1870s, Ventura County pioneer and U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Bard launched a campaign to build a road across the Santa Clara Valley, according to newspaper clippings at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art.

Bard was trying to connect the newly established Hueneme Wharf with ore mines in Inyo County in the northeast, according to Charles Johnson of the museum. The road would supplant the old mission-to-mission route.

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Initially, it was named Santa Clara Road. Later, it was renamed Route 79, and in 1963 the road became California 126.

Ranchos and oil industries gave way to citrus groves, and the route became popular not only locally but among Central Valley truckers hauling crops to the Port of Hueneme and for Navy trucks traveling to Ventura County’s two military bases. Today, the 126 is also a prime commuter route connecting Santa Clarita and Ventura.

Caltrans straightened some of the road’s curves in the 1940s, and in the 1960s widened the road to four lanes between Ventura and Santa Paula.

In the 1970s, alarmed by the number of people being killed near their homes, about 20 residents began lobbying officials to turn the highway into four lanes from Santa Paula to the county line.

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From 1974 to 1985, the Highway 126 Improvement Assn. met once a month as part of the crusade to make the highway safer.

“We were having a tremendous amount of accidents and we were concerned for our safety and our families’ safety,” said Carl Beringer, who spearheaded the group. “There wasn’t a day that we didn’t have an accident along the highway.”

Foreseeing an increase in traffic, Caltrans in 1985 began widening California 126 from Santa Paula to Interstate 5 at Castaic Junction. The project is expected to be completed in the first half of this year.

“We have seen a tremendous improvement since we have had four lanes,” said Beringer, who lives in Santa Paula. “We just wish it had been four lanes from the time it was built.”

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Despite the fatalities, many nearby residents--including the Aguires and the Bowers--say they have no plans to move because they have fallen in love with the Santa Clara Valley.

“It’s a beautiful valley and we wouldn’t exchange it for anything else,” said Tobey Bowers as she stood by a kitchen window, watching traffic flow through citrus orchards along the blacktopped road.


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