By Janene Scully,
Noozhawk North County Editor
Fault for the spate of crashes in and around the Santa Ynez Valley rests with drivers who are distracted, intoxicated, tailgating, speeding or otherwise not following rules of the road, according to the California Highway Patrol, which has taken aim at the problem.
CHP officers based in Buellton have handled a rash of crashes — most recently on Highway 154 and 246, but previously on Highways 1 and 101 in the Buellton area.
That is one reason drivers will notice a heavier presence of CHP officers on those roadways, with recent patrols targeting Highways 154 on Friday nights.
“You can bet your bottom dollar we’ll be on (Highway) 246 as soon as we can because of the recent crashes,” Officer Kevin McCool said during a Noozhawk reporter’s ride-along, which was a few days after a double fatal crash in the area.
Crashes on Highway 154 have always been a grave concern for public safety agencies, Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley said.
“Lately, it seems as if this public safety concern has escalated to become a public safety crisis,” she said. “I know all public safety agencies are engaged in finding solutions but it’s time to get our entire community involved, including educational institutions, business, medical facilities, faith-based organizations and all family members.
“I believe their focused engagement is not just necessary but a matter of life and death,” she added.
Earlier this year, Caltrans replaced the striping on Highway 154 and added new pavement markers, District 5 spokesman Jim Shivers said.
Caltrans also has projects to enhance pedestrian safety on Highway 246 in the Santa Ynez Valley using signs that illuminate at crosswalks when people are present.
The agency will install a roundabout on Highway 154 at the intersection of Baseline Avenue and Edison Street, about two miles north of the Highway 246 roundabout. Construction is to begin in 2022.
CHP saturation patrols involve putting extra officers on the road — and pulling over lawbreakers — to drive home the message about safety.
“We want to be the talk of the town, so to speak,” McCool said, before speeding after a driver spotted not wearing a seat belt.
From Jan. 1, 2016, through Dec. 31, 2018, there were 436 crashes on the entire stretch of Highway 154, with seven of them resulting in fatalities. More than 100 of the wrecks occurred in wet conditions and 149 happened in the dark, Shivers said.
From Highway 101 on the Santa Ynez side moving east for two miles, there were 32 crashes with two fatalities, he added.
The CHP decided on its recent Highway 154 enforcement effort after a pair of two-vehicle head-on crashes on the narrow road left multiple people with serious injuries.
Extra patrols on the last two Fridays of September led to four arrests of people for driving under the influence, outstanding warrants and possession of a controlled substance. Officers also issued 20 citations varying from speeding to mechanical problems.
Under the leadership of Lt. J.D. Frost, Buellton officers also have conducted saturation patrols on Highway 101.
Not all traffic stops lead to tickets since it’s up to the CHP officer to issue a citation or a stern warning, McCool said, adding that the decision depends on a number of factors. And despite the urban myths, CHP officers don’t have a regular quota to meet, he said.
In the end, some simple but elusive steps could make local drivers much safer, he said.
“Four main things — slow down, designate a sober driver, don’t drive distracted and wear a seat belt,” McCool said. “If we could do those things, the amount of injuries, the amount of collisions, the amount of fatalities, everything plummets, and that’s what we want.”
The veteran law enforcement officer said drivers not wearing or improperly wearing seat belts irks him.
“Unfortunately, I’ve dealt with quite a few fatals where the people that were driving would have survived more than likely had they been wearing their seatbelt appropriately,” McCool said. “It amazes me how many people don’t wear their seatbelt at all or wear them inappropriately after all the proof that’s been given and they save lives.
“Seat belts save lives. It’s that simple.”
McCool also stresses that using a hands-free device for cellphone calls is still distracting, since it takes drivers’ minds off driving.
“Your primary focus when you’re driving should be safety of yourself and people around you,” he said.
— Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.