From Monday into Wednesday this week, the California Highway Patrol has reported a substantial increase in accidents along highways 41 and 49 in the Mountain Area, all related to icy road conditions.
To remind the public how important it is to slow down and stay safe behind the wheel, Cory Burkarth, spokesman for Caltrans District 6 in the Central Valley, offered a grim statement.
“This isn’t just a public service announcement, this isn’t just a safety message, this is about life and death on these roads,” Burkarth said. “We need motorists to do their part and drive safely. Slow down, increase your space between your vehicle and the vehicle in front of you, and plan additional time for your trips.”
Burkarth said after several weeks of storms, including the heavy snowfall last weekend that blanketed the Mountain Area, drivers may feel a “false sense of security” and become comfortable driving at or above the speed limit.
“I think what we’re seeing is due to all the storms, residents are used to these conditions and think they can drive faster than they should,” Burkarth said. “And that false, heightened sense of ability is very, very dangerous. When people think they can drive safely at higher speeds in these conditions, it’s not only dangerous for them, it’s dangerous for everyone.”
The Oakhurst CHP office reported 10 collisions on highways 41 and 49 from Monday through Wednesday, all of them due to icy roads (black ice).
CHP Public Information Officer Kaci Lutz reinforced Burkarth’s message, adding the usual average number of collisions on the highways is about one per day, not the current daily rate of more than three.
“Obviously people are not taking into consideration that even with this nice, sunny weather, we still have bad roadways,” Lutz said. “We still have ice, and with this current weather, people still need to exercise caution, even if it’s not raining or snowing.”
Burkarth said Caltrans crews are at work 24 hours a day, seven days a week to “treat” roadways, usually by covering them in sand. He said crews have put down 50 tons of sand in a six-mile stretch of highways 41 and 49 over the last few weeks.
“We’ve got water crossing and freezing on some sections of road when we have never seen that ... ever,” Burkarth said. “People who’ve lived in some areas for 50, 60 years tell us they’ve never seen this before. What we’re seeing right now is unprecedented.”
One particularly troublesome spot, Burkarth said, was the section of Highway 41 between Coarsegold and Oakhurst, through the Serpa Canyon area and over Deadwood Mountain.
Lutz said the speed limit is a maximum limit for a reason.
“If conditions warrant lower speeds, like these roads right now, that’s what needs to happen,” Lutz said. “And remember, just as fast as this nicer weather came, we can go back to rain and storms. So everybody needs to be cognizant of their driving habits, where they’re driving, and their conditions. People need to be cautious.”
Lutz added that people need to limit distractions while driving.
“Stay off your cell phone, drive at lower speeds and keep extra space between other vehicles,” Lutz said. “Don’t hurry, and plan to leave 15 minutes earlier, or more. We want you to get to your destination safely.”
Details: Caltrans District 6, (559) 444-2409, Oakhurst CHP office, (559) 658-6590.