Driving a Deadly Dinosaur
The Ortega Highway meanders along an old Indian trail through rural southern Orange County, passing dark green oaks and golden grasslands where mountain lions roam and red-tailed hawks circle. Then it climbs into the Santa Ana Mountains, with sheer rock walls on one side and steep canyon drop-offs on the other.
But this narrow, 44-mile-long serpent of asphalt is no leisurely drive in the country. With sections of it carrying nicknames such as Dead Man’s Curve, Ricochet Alley and Blood Alley, California 74 is, by some measures, the most dangerous road in the state.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. Aug. 31, 2001 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday August 31, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Ortega--A story Aug. 11 on the Ortega Highway misspelled the name of Mike Huber, a motorcyclist killed in 1997 on a dangerous stretch of the road known as Ricochet Alley.
The 72-year-old stretch of blacktop has become a place where urban sprawl, bad driving and obsolete road-building techniques collide head-on between San Juan Capistrano and Perris.
As one of only two arteries connecting homes in Riverside County with jobs in Orange County, the highway lures more and more commuters every year. They often speed, drift over the center line and pass illegally--sometimes on blind curves--to advance their place in the string of cars, trucks and big rigs.
On weekends, the highway takes on another personality. Car clubs and sightseers compete for road space with motorcyclists, many drawn by the kick of leaning into a turn at 100 mph.
The bikers weave in and out of the procession of slower-moving campers, mobile homes and vehicles towing boats to Lake Elsinore. They accelerate on the straightaways and in the S-turns, the roar of their high-powered machines piercing the quiet.
During the 1990s, traffic deaths and injuries rose steadily on the highway. Motorists are now more likely to get into a fatal or injury accident and more likely to be seriously hurt on California 74 than on any similar rural road in California.
Construction worker Richard Brown, 58, says he is in constant fear during his 30-mile commute from Lake Elsinore to south Orange County. “Your life is in danger on that highway, no matter what,” says Brown, “even if you’re the best driver in the world.”
To join Brown and his fellow commuters on the Ortega is to travel a road that swerves sharply between the charms of old California and the perils of the new.
MILE 1 San Juan Capistrano
The highway, named after a Spanish army pathfinder, begins just outside the mission gates in San Juan Capistrano, a town of about 30,000 known more for swallows and Spanish adobes than gridlock. Because of development in south Orange County, the number of motorists using the city’s portion of the Ortega has increased tenfold since 1970.
From the mission, the highway crosses a busy interchange with Interstate 5 and cuts through some of the city’s residential areas. During rush hour, traffic slows and motorists hunt for a way out in the surrounding neighborhoods, congesting the streets there too.
Joining commuters on the Ortega are scores of garbage haulers and sand-and-gravel trucks going to and from landfills and quarry operations east of the city. The huge vehicles fill the width of the lanes.
“It’s a train of headlights going both ways starting at 5:30 a.m.,” says Cher Shepherd, 40, of Laguna Hills, who commutes to work at the Nichols Institute, a complex of medical laboratories about 10 miles east of San Juan Capistrano. “The road is not designed to handle the traffic, especially all the semis.”
Outside the city limits, the road crosses the vacant tracts of Rancho Mission Viejo, where the planned development of 25,000 acres is expected to put even more pressure on the highway.
Near Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park, the Santa Ana Mountains come into view, especially the distinctive contours of Modjeska and Santiago peaks.
The highway is fairly flat and straight through this part of Orange County’s back country. Its shoulders are ample in case of emergency, and the speed limit is 55 mph. But motorists often ignore the law.
“See that?” says California Highway Patrol Officer Steve Miles, pointing out an oncoming Toyota pickup truck that has drifted across the double yellow line directly in front of his patrol car. Radar indicates the truck is doing 74 mph. Miles, who regularly patrols the Ortega, turns his Ford Crown Victoria around and chases the pickup.
“We see this kind of thing way too much,” he says after stopping the Toyota. “My pet peeve is passing over the double yellow.”
That is what happened in June when a carpool van on its way to the Nichols Institute swerved off the highway to avoid an oncoming motorist who was trying to pass another car illegally. The van tumbled down a 15-foot embankment.
The driver, John D. Phelps, 59, who might be permanently paralyzed from the waist down, was hospitalized for more than a month. Four passengers escaped injury. The driver of the other car just kept going.
“It’s kind of ironic,” says Gary Samuels, a spokesman for the Nichols Institute. “We offered the van pool thinking it would be safer and more convenient for employees. Then a crazy driver runs them off the road.”
MILE 14 Ricochet Alley
East of the crash site, the highway, which was built in 1929, heads into the mountains and the Cleveland National Forest, where it becomes more winding and treacherous. The lanes narrow in places to 10 feet, two feet less than current standards. Caltrans officials say the tight turns, grades and sloping curves might not meet modern requirements either.
Signs warn drivers they are entering a special traffic zone, where serious violations carry double fines. In many places, there is virtually no shoulder to separate the traffic lanes from the wall of rock on one side and the steep San Juan Creek Canyon on the other. The advisory speed limit is often 30 mph.
“What was standard back then is substandard now,” says Safaa Bayati, a project manager at the Caltrans district office in San Bernardino. The road “was never intended for high-speed use.”
In such tight quarters, cars and trucks sometimes sideswipe each other, ripping off side-view mirrors, door handles and trim. Motorists who pass illegally often force other drivers to brake or hug the guardrails or hillsides to avoid getting hit.
Rear-end accidents are common too, as drivers round blind curves to find a slow-moving queue. Every now and then, a motorist, perhaps sleepy or distracted by the scenery, inexplicably drives off the highway.
Up here, the Ortega is a meandering ribbon of pavement, a prescription for motion sickness as cars shift from left to right every few seconds. Skid marks are common. Flat tires, breakdowns and crashes, even minor ones, can cause traffic to back up for miles.
“I’ve been in three accidents myself and seen two people die on the Ortega,” says Sergio Velasco, 35, of Lake Elsinore, who manages the Harbor House Cafe in Dana Point. He’s been driving the route for 15 years.
Within this area--known as Ricochet Alley because vehicles striking the guardrails or sheer mountainsides can carom across the traffic lanes--is a stretch of road, about 15 miles inland from Interstate 5, that is the most dangerous mile on the Orange County side of Ortega Highway. Two people were killed and 29 seriously injured in 25 major crashes on this mile of roadway from 1994 to 1999.
Not far from here is a small white cross planted high in a road cut. It’s a memorial to Mike Hubert, a well-known motorcyclist who was killed in a crash near Mile Marker 14.5 in 1997. People still place flowers and flags at the site.
MILE 22 Lookout Road House
About two miles from the memorial, California 74 crosses into Riverside County. The road climbs through the boulder-strewn hills and reaches a final elevation of 2,666 feet before descending along a series of switchbacks and tight turns into Lake Elsinore.
“State Safety Corridor,” the signs state. “Drive Safely.”
Because of its scenery and twisting road conditions, this part of the highway has become especially popular with bikers, from leather-clad road racers to retirees on comfy Harley-Davidsons equipped with fringed saddlebags, wind screens and CD players.
Their regular hangout is the Lookout Road House, perched on a cliff just off the highway. The views of Lake Elsinore and the new subdivisions of Riverside County are spectacular. Here, the conversation often revolves around derring-do: crossing double yellow lines to pass cars and taking curves at high speed.
Tyler Paulson, 40, who has seen friends die in motorcycle crashes, says there are too many amateur riders on the road today who will not leave their egos at home.
Still, he and other experienced riders admit to taking risks themselves.
“There’s something about sticking your knee to the ground at 100 miles an hour that gets you going,” Paulson says. “It’s that edgy thing. I could die doing it.”
Others have. CHP records show that of more than 120 state routes in California, California 74 ranks fifth in motorcycle fatalities, surpassing many large expressways.
CHP officers say unsafe driving is the primary problem with the highway. If posted speed limits and traffic warnings are obeyed, they say, the road can be driven without incident.
“Much of what happens on the highway can’t be considered an accident,” says CHP Lt. Sandra Houston of the Temecula station. “These are collisions because a lot of this stuff is deliberate.”
MILE 28 Lake Elsinore
Over the last year, CHP offices in Temecula and San Juan Capistrano have dedicated more resources and officers to cracking down on traffic violators and improving safety on California 74, which changes from the Ortega Highway to a succession of other names once it hits Lake Elsinore.
In Riverside County, a special task force involving police, community leaders and the CHP is credited with reducing reported accidents by 29% over 18 months. The program ended in June, however.
“Some people don’t care. They pass you and try to make it no matter what. There are close calls all the time,” says Dave Romero, 39, a carpenter from Quail Valley, who regularly stops for morning coffee at Vista Donuts & Bakery in Lake Elsinore.
Romero is married and has three daughters. He commutes to Orange County five days a week. It’s 75 minutes each way. When he moved to Quail Valley 17 years ago, Romero says, “there was nothing there.”
Today, south Riverside County has emerged as one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. The population increased from 218,874 in 1990 to 361,183 in 2000.
Because of an imbalance in jobs and affordable housing between the counties, many Riverside County residents work in Orange County, which leaves them few transportation options.
Other than the heavily congested Riverside Freeway to the north, California 74 has become the only viable alternative for commuters living in such places as Lake Elsinore, Perris, Murrieta and Temecula.
“I’ve been making the commute for about four years, and it’s steadily getting worse,” Romero says. “I don’t have much choice.”
Caltrans records show that traffic volume in the mountains has increased from about 1,600 cars a day 30 years ago to more than 7,600 cars today. In Riverside County, the traffic has increased 200% to 300%, depending on the section of highway.
“We are getting to the constraints of what the road can handle from a capacity standpoint,” says Jim Beil, a Caltrans project manager in Irvine. “This road won’t be able to handle future growth.”
MILE 44 Blood Alley
From Lake Elsinore to Perris, the highway largely remains a two-lane road and courses through a mix of residential neighborhoods, strip malls, roadside businesses and agricultural land. The road branches into four lanes in Perris.
Although the lanes are wider and the curves more gradual than in the mountains, there have been so many accidents on this part of the highway that it has been dubbed Blood Alley.
Since the late 1980s, about 50 people have been killed and more than 1,000 injured in accidents along this stretch, which includes Dead Man’s Curve and the most hazardous mile of the highway. That mile, just outside Perris, saw five people killed and 53 seriously injured in 31 major accidents from 1994 to 1999.
Businesses and homes line Blood Alley, but there are few if any turn lanes or traffic signals. The shoulders are jagged asphalt and dirt. The road also has sloping curves, which limit visibility for motorists, who steadily whiz by faster than the 55-mph limit.
Because of that, Riverside County is planning a $50-million improvement project to add lanes, turn pockets and wider shoulders to almost nine miles of highway.
“Enough is enough,” says Garry Grant, 74, of Meadowbrook, who has worked with a community group for three years to get the improvements. “The old highway needs to be straightened and the dangerous curves removed.”
Grant and his family are victims of Blood Alley. He says he totaled his small truck in a head-on crash in the early 1990s, when a motorist crossed the center line. He and his wife suffered whiplash injuries. The other driver, who was uninsured, broke his wrist. About five months ago, Grant’s 37-year-old son broke his shoulder when a mobile home swerved off the road and hit him while he was bicycling.
Over the last decade, traffic fatalities on the highway have gone from an average of four a year to eight, with a high of 10 in 1997. Severe injuries have risen too, hitting a high of 29 in 1997.
To deal with the problem, Caltrans has undertaken a variety of safety projects for the road over the last decade, including new guardrails, signs, reflective markings and shoulder improvements.
Lane widenings, additional lanes and realignments have been proposed for other sections of the highway. But improvements that could turn it into a major commuter route face political opposition in Orange County, especially in increasingly congested San Juan Capistrano.
Also, road builders say little can be done to widen the narrow parts of the highway without enormous expense and environmental damage to the Cleveland National Forest.
“I don’t know what they can do,” says Richard Brown as he waits in line at a convenience store in Lake Elsinore. “The stories just go on and on. People lose their wheels. They back up into traffic and they run off the road for no apparent reason.
“Nothing is safe on the Ortega.”
Times staff writer Ray Herndon contributed to this story.
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California Highway Patrol figures show that the number of traffic deaths and crashes causing serious injury on California 74 has steadily climbed during the past decade. Unsafe speeds and high traffic volumes combine to make Ortega Highway one of the most dangerous highways in the state, according to CHP statistics.
Sources: Caltrans, California Highway Patrol, Riverside and Orange counties Graphics reporting by BRADY MacDONALD, RAY HERNDON and DAN WEIKEL / Los Angeles Times
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California’s Most Dangerous Back Roads
The risk of having an accident and of being seriously injured is higher on the Ortega Highway than on six similar rural highways in the state. Using a ratio of total accidents to vehicle trips from 1995 to 1999, The Times compared the risks of driving the seven rural highways.
Sources: Accident figures from the California Highway Patrol; traffic volume data from Caltrans.
Graphics reporting by RAY HERNDON / Los Angeles Times
*Per 10,000 vehicle trips