A small number of Santa Ynez Valley drivers talked about the large number of near-misses they have had on the busy Highway 154 as residents renew their call for safety improvements.
“I can hardly think of a time where I’ve driven to Santa Barbara or up north on 154 where there hasn’t been something that I go, ‘uh oh” either for my sake or somebody else’s,” resident Teresa McNeil MacLean said. “There’s always near-misses.,”
Santa Ynez Valley residents who regularly drive on Highway 154 are conservative to guard against crashes on the road “even though people are driving like maniacs,” Mary Beth Kerr added.
“It’s just getting scarier and scarier,” said Kerr, who had led efforts to get safety measures put into place.
On Wednesday afternoon, seven women stood near the intersection of Highway 154 and Roblar Avenue as traffic whizzed along the busy road.
Near-misses and fatal crashes have spurred Santa Ynez Valley residents to lobbying for the changes to make the road safer.
While data exist for fatal and other crashes, those near-misses don’t appear in those statistics.
Helen Larsen, who has lived on West Camino Cielo for decades, told about a refrigerator truck that crossed double yellow lines to pass her and later went over double yellow lines to move into the left-turn lane as other drivers heading the opposite direction took evasive action.
“They all had to scatter and get over into the right lane to avoid this stupid trucker,” Larsen said, adding that she called the trucking company to complain.
Kerr, who has advocated for improvements on the busy highway, organized the gathering through a Facebook group.
She spearheaded a similar effort last year and has become familiar with California Highway Patrol and Caltrans officials.
In 2010, the state said the average daily traffic count on Highway 154 at the intersection with Highway 246 was 11,100 vehicles, compared to 12,500 in 2014. At Stagecoach Road, the state noted 11,300 vehicles, compared to 14,100.
Later this summer, Kerr said, she expects to meet with representatives of Caltrans, CHP and legislators.
After meeting with lawmakers, Kerr said, she wants to hold a town hall meeting for the broader community.
Wednesday afternoon’s gathering drew the attention of a neighbor who pulled up in his black vehicle.
“This is so dangerous,” said Nick Vande Steeg said, adding that the left-turn lane at Roblar has only created more problems at the intersection.
Increased traffic along Highway 154 is blamed on a number of factors, including tourism, the Chumash Casino, wine tasting, and local commuters.
But the road safety advocates also contend online mapping systems calling Highway 154 a shorter route between northern and southern Santa Barbara County add to the traffic —and dangers.
Websites label the highway as a scenic back road and a shorter distance than taking Highway 101.
Caltrans District 5 spokesman Colin Jones said traffic on the Central Coast typically shows steady increases over the year, instead of big leaps.
“We’re always looking for ways to improve our highways,” Jones said.
But there’s one big factor the state transportation engineers can’t fix — motorists who drive while intoxicated, distracted, sleepy or otherwise impaired.
“Traffic safety depends on safe operation of a motor vehicle,” Jones said.
Kerr is pushing for Vision Zero, an international effort aimed at eliminating all traffic fatalities and serious injuries, as an initiative needed for Santa Barbara County.
“In Sweden, part of how they did Vision Zero was by using roundabouts because they’re less lethal and because they slowed people down,” she said.
Larsen suggested eliminating big rigs from using the route between Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley unless they are making local deliveries. Trucks making local deliveries would have a large signs saying they are authorized to use the route.
“Maybe that would help keep 73-foot rigs off this road because they are dangerous,” Larsen said.
Larsen also would like to see a series of signs, akin to Burma Shave advertisements from decades ago, reminding motorists to drive safely.
“Because they only gain three minutes if they’re going 70 mph in a 32-mile stretch as opposed to 55 mph …” she said. “These people lose their lives for three minutes. I mean, wow.”