The Perils of PCH


If the Pacific Coast Highway were a person, it would be someone you found exasperating, frustrating and undeniably charismatic. Someone you were excited to see every time she walked in the door, but whose capricious, often hurtful behavior you cursed. Someone whose dangerous tendencies were masked--but just barely--by a dazzling, come-hither grin.

Twenty-eight miles of the Pacific Coast Highway stretch from Santa Monica to the Ventura County line, seducing travelers with a sparkling, cerulean ocean on one side and armies of yellow flowers swaying lazily at the foot of a towering hillside on the other.

But the bluff can turn to an ominous wall of sliding mud without much warning, and a driver scanning the waves for dolphins or the roadside for a parking space can easily drift across the center line and risk colliding with opposing traffic, which is sometimes only inches away.


The portion of California’s Route 1 that curves northwest from Santa Monica to the oak-strewn hills of Malibu has been closed 21 times this year, smothered by mudslides that force drivers to take tortuous canyon routes to and from home, school and work. Although landslides may be troublesome, immeasurably more troubling are the statistics on the number of lives lost in PCH traffic accidents each year.

The highway has claimed the lives of four people since December--a 16-year-old driving herself to school, two Pepperdine law students out for a nighttime study break, and a woman exiting McDonald’s in the center of Malibu on a weekend afternoon.

Something about the recent deaths has triggered a strong response from citizens, who want safety measures improved. And the fatalities have prompted officials to push for more than $10 million to build a median on PCH through Malibu.

“It’s very predictable that every year we’re gonna lose some life on this road,” said Capt. Bill McSweeney of the Malibu-Lost Hills sheriff’s station during a recent drive along the 23 miles his deputies patrol.

In the past 10 years alone, 106 people have died on PCH between the Ventura County line and the point where California 1 swoops into Interstate 10 in Santa Monica.

For comparison, 178 people lost their lives on a 28-mile span of Interstate 10 from Santa Monica to El Monte from 1987 to 1997, although that route carries about five times more traffic than PCH.

“[The] attitude has been, ‘Oh well, that’s the highway, that’s how it is’ “--not only among law enforcement agencies, McSweeney says, but also among residents and elected officials.

But it can’t go on like this, say many Malibu residents.

Among them is Peter Csato, whose daughter Sabrina was killed by an allegedly drunk driver who crossed over the center line and hit her head-on as she was headed to Palisades High School from her Point Dume home early one March morning.

Csato, 53, and his wife and older daughter appeared at an April news conference--with Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and Malibu and Los Angeles County elected officials--to plead with the state Department of Transportation to study the possibility of constructing traffic medians throughout Malibu on PCH.

“It should be inevitable, the median,” Csato said on a recent Tuesday afternoon when a truck had flipped over in exactly the spot where his daughter died and when a slide near Las Flores Canyon had closed the road, delaying him an hour as he drove to the Palisades hair salon that he and his wife have run for 10 years.

“It’s too late for me, but I really would like to save other people grief,” he said. “I don’t think anybody should go through that kind of horrible consequences because the median is missing on Pacific Coast Highway.”

Campaigning for a Median

Csato has talked to the sheriff’s deputies at the Malibu-Lost Hills station and to elected officials such as Sherman and county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky dozens of times since Sabrina died, pushing them to make the median a reality.

Sheriff’s deputies have in turn suggested to Caltrans that an 8-inch-tall median strip with spots left open for left turns would significantly decrease the number of head-on collisions on the highway.

In a House transportation bill now being reworked by a congressional conference committee, Sherman earmarked $650,000 for improving safety on PCH.

Sherman said he is relatively confident that the revised act will contain some money for that project. But he said all parties concerned--he, Malibu and county officials--should keep the pressure on Caltrans to find the millions necessary to construct a median.

And many in Malibu share Csato’s zeal, hoping that the local outpouring of feeling after the well-publicized deaths of Sabrina and the two Pepperdine law students, Kimberly Ellis and Jeannine Gregory, will engender a sustainable campaign for better safety measures on the highway.

“I don’t think there’s a person who lives in Malibu who doesn’t have safety concerns about the highway,” said Marlene Matlow, a 23-year resident of Point Dume who said that each of the four members of her family has been in an accident on PCH. “I don’t know why, but the people who come to Malibu are crazy drivers. Whether it’s the view or looking for a parking place . . . they’re carefree and careless. I mean, people make U-turns on Pacific Coast Highway, can you imagine that?”

U-turns are permitted only from left-turn lanes. But many drivers make them elsewhere, dangerously sweeping across several lanes of traffic.

Despite the numerous proponents of the median idea, the plan is certain to meet some resistance in Malibu from people who live or work along PCH and would have to drive out of their way to circumnavigate a median strip.

Hard luck, say its supporters.

“The inconvenience of that should be mitigated by not having 10 people get killed every year,” said Andy Cohen, a resident of the Broad Beach area.

With a median, you will get more broadside accidents, critics say. Broadsides don’t rip the roof off a car and crush the people underneath, as in the case of the Pepperdine students, counter the supporters. But zeal or no zeal, getting a $10-million to $20-million median built may be an arduous process.

Margie Tiritilli, a spokeswoman for Caltrans, said transportation engineers began studying the highway’s safety problems in early May and should report their recommendations by the end of June.

Early thinking is that more enforcement of traffic and speeding laws may help, she said. The prospect of a median is worrisome, she added, because emergency vehicles might have more difficulty getting to the scene of an accident or mudslide.

Median-boosters point out that the median would have breaks in it to facilitate turns.

And Capt. McSweeney said deputies already write nearly 15,000 tickets a year on PCH, and the station’s level of enforcement is twice that recommended by the state Office of Traffic Safety.

Even with more staff on duty, McSweeney asks, how could they ensure that deputies would be “right in the specific enforcement position to keep [drivers] from going over the lines?”

Law enforcement officials say the road is so dangerous because of its relatively high 45-mph speed limit and traffic volume, curves and lack of a consistent median.

Also problematic is the single left-turn lane used by traffic traveling in both directions through the business section of Malibu.

In some places along the highway, the vestiges of a median exist. But the road has been resurfaced often enough that the dividers stand only 2 or 3 inches high. That’s enough to startle a driver who hits one, but it probably won’t stop someone who’s really flying.

In other areas, there’s no room for error.

As Malibu sheriff’s station veteran Sgt. Kevin Mauch put it as he traveled eastward on the highway recently, pointing out the danger zones: “There’s nothing between us and the car coming in the other direction besides paint.”

Mudslide Threat

If the constant threat of instant death isn’t enough to keep PCH drivers alert, the frequent mudslides and resulting traffic tangles should do it.

The highway carries about 71,000 cars on an average day in Santa Monica and about 37,000 near the Malibu Civic Center, with numbers in the summer increasing by 3,000 to 5,000 a day.

A common sight for these drivers is the ubiquitous plastic tarps that try to divert rain off bluff tops. Or the retaining walls positioned to keep mud off the lanes and prevent falling boulders from bouncing onto cars. Or the mud-spattered yellow signs reading “Slide Area” or “Flooded.”

Slides brought on by El Nino rains closed PCH for at least part of 21 days this year.

The area around Las Flores Canyon has been notoriously slippery, causing closures between it and Topanga Canyon Road several times. Days like those, westbound commuters might head north on Topanga, then take a series of narrow, twisting canyon roads until they can finally rejoin the highway maybe an hour later. Or longer.

Another series of slides originating in Palisades Park in Santa Monica prompted the city to carve away part of the bluffs. Up to two lanes of traffic were devoted to contractors’ equipment from April 23 until earlier this week.

Contractors’ dump trucks hold about 10 cubic yards, said Dennis Cutting, a Caltrans maintenance supervisor. Since slides range from 20,000 to 50,000 cubic yards in volume, he said, cleanup clearly takes some time.

“Sorry if we get in your way, but we’re not out here having fun,” Cutting said with some sarcasm. Drivers have occasionally ignored Caltrans workers’ directives to detour, he said, or improperly driven along the side of the road, then been upset when their cars got hit by rocks thrown sideways by heavy machinery.

Mopping up costs money too--he estimates that clearing the road after a single slide costs between $80,000 and $100,000.

All this conspires to make this part of California 1--completed in the 1920s and once called Roosevelt Highway for Theodore Roosevelt, who died in 1919--one of the most problematic of the state’s highways, Cutting said.

One solution sometimes chosen by private landowners is to shoot a form of concrete onto hillsides to hinder erosion. That can be successful, although there are places along the road where patches of it are buckling, threatening to fall onto the road.

At Las Flores, Caltrans has graded back the slope and drilled pipes into it to siphon off water, and plans to cover the surface with a heavy-gauge chain-link material. Vegetation will grow through the mesh and keep soil from gravitating toward PCH.

That’s the theory, at least.

Cutting, for one, is skeptical of ever being able to truly banish slides from PCH.

“The mountains crumble to the sea,” he said. “It’s an ongoing fact, long before any of us got here.”

And for those who travel it, the reality that Pacific Coast Highway is charming but changeable, delightful but dangerous, is also an ongoing fact.


Signs of Trouble

The Pacific Coast Highway between Santa Monica and the Ventura County line enchants drivers with spectacular scenery, but it also bedevils them with mudslides, road closures and life-threatening accidents. After recent fatal crashes -- two involving young victims --area residents and law enforcement officials have asked state highway authorities to find ways to increase safety, including possibly constructing median strips in Malibu.

Median strip recommended by law enforcement: Kanan Dune Rd. to Via Escondido.

Traffic fatality:

Slide-prone area: Latigo Cyn. Rd, to Corral Cyn. Rd.

Traffic fatalities: DEC. 9: two Pepperdine students die in head-on collision. JAN. 24: Woman exiting McDonald’s killed in three-car collision.

Median strip recommended by law enforcement: Serra Rd. to 3/4-mile east of Las Flores Cyn. Rd.

Slide-prone area: Carbon Cyn. to south end of Palisades Park in Santa Monica just north of pier.