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Crackdown starts today on Hwy. 17By Gary RichardsMercury NewsCRASHES SPUR ST. PATRICK'S DAY WEEKEND PATROLS
Danger has returned to Highway 17, and this St. Patrick's Day weekend the California Highway Patrol intends to do something about it.
A dozen extra cops will patrol the curvy, 18-mile road from Santa Cruz to Los Gatos, hoping to ease a sudden rise in crashes. Collisions jumped 22 percent last year -- 39 percent on the Santa Cruz County side. The 689 wrecks on the entire highway were the most since 1998 when 896 were recorded, prompting an intensive campaign to reduce the crashes.
No one is certain whether the rise in accidents last year is a one-year blip or a sign of a more ominous trend. And they don't know why the number of crashes is up.
``In 2004 we really hit the highway hard; we were out there and hammered it,'' said CHP officer Jason Butler. ``But it's hard to continue that pace year after year after year.''
The crackdown this weekend is part of a continuing effort to improve safety on the main link between Silicon Valley and the coast. A $48 million widening project will begin next month around the Fishhook, the notorious Highway 1-17 interchange that is a daily headache for motorists. And this summer upgrades will begin at Laurel Curve and in the Scotts Valley area.
More than $20 million has been spent to widen shoulders, improve drainage, trim trees, add new pavement and install road signs to slow drivers since the Safe on 17 campaign began in 1999.
But putting more cops on the road is a key to lowering the crash rate, cops who this weekend will take aim at those causing the most problems -- drunks, speeders, tailgaters and lane-changers.
Normally, two to three cops patrol Highway 17. A $100,000 grant for overtime allows the CHP to employ as many as 12 on the road during some busy times of the day. Motorcycle cops joined the effort three years ago after Internet messages went out alerting motorists where patrol cars parked.
The result: Nearly 12,000 tickets were written in 2004, up nearly 40 percent from the late '90s.
Chain-reaction crashes
CHP Capt. Christina Manriquez blamed the rise in crashes partly on a rash of secondary collisions, ones where one wreck leads to more, especially where the road twists and the view ahead is limited.
``Once a collision happens in a curve, it's almost impossible to prevent more crashes,'' Manriquez said. ``We've had some major incidents up there where there's been seven or eight subsequent crashes. That skews the numbers.''
One sad example: the deaths of CHP officer Lt. Michael Walker and motorist Jerry Blinkenberg of Boulder Creek on New Year's Eve.
As Walker set flares near Glenwood Drive while aiding a driver whose car had spun out, Blinkenberg lost control of his Audi on the wet road as he approached Glenwood and hit a Caltrans truck, killing Walker and himself.
Fatalities have remained low, with three last year. There were five the year before the safety campaign began.
The state says the area on 17 north of Highway 1 is a problem, and Caltrans will repave the six-mile section up to Granite Creek Road this summer, using special asphalt that allows water to drain better.
But another worry has popped up: water accumulating near Vinehill Road, a recipe for spinouts.
``We're seeing a lot of wet-weather-related collisions there,'' Caltrans engineer Nevin Sams said. ``Something has changed out there.''
Some commuters say the rise in crashes comes as no surprise.
``It's because people drive carelessly,'' said Celeste Tillman, a benefits analyst at Borland Software in Scotts Valley, whose friend Tamra Selfridge was killed in a crash near Laurel Curve in 1994. ``They drive too fast and they don't care about anyone else driving around them. And with all those blind corners you never know what is on the other side or if you will need to stop quickly.''
Results achieved
State officials launched the safety effort after a 21 percent rise in accidents and a 29 percent increase in injuries from 1997 to 1998 on the Santa Cruz County side of the four-lane road. The state approved a $350,000 grant to pay for nearly 900 hours of overtime duty for the CHP on Highway 17, hoping to reduce crashes by 10 percent.
Initial results far exceeded that goal -- injury collisions fell 67 percent and all accidents 59 percent between 1999 and 2002.
The number of crashes also dropped dramatically at one of the most dangerous locations -- near Glenwood Curve -- when Caltrans installed an electronic sign that flashes the speed of approaching traffic. There were 4.67 collisions per million vehicle miles between 1997 and 1999 at that spot, triple the state average. From 2004 to 2005, that rate fell to 1.65.
The message: Better slow down and follow the 50 mph speed limit or you'll get a ticket.
The initial grant ended in 2002. But the CHP is ready to spend the new grant for more overtime.
Commuter Patrick Kelley said that's a good thing.
``I've never seen so many accidents south of the Summit and almost all end up upside-down,'' said Kelley, 50, of Aptos, who has commuted over the hill for five years to Silicon Valley. ``Blanket the Summit with CHP and I guarantee that this rate will come down just like it did a few years ago after a rash of accidents.
``Not just a few cops for a few days. Lots of cops for a long time.''
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