By Janene Scully
Noozhawk North County Editor
With traffic racing by on nearby Highway 154, California Highway Patrol officers and elected officials gathered June 8 to remind drivers to be safe as the summer travel season gets underway.
They also revealed plans to study Santa Ynez Valley traffic with an eye toward improving safety.
“Driving is a complex task, requiring a motorist’s full attention,” said Lt. Kurt Kruse, commander of the CHP’s Buellton Area office. “Anything that diverts the driver’s eyes or attention from the roadway, even for one to two seconds, could result in tragedy or loss of life.”
For instance, using a cellphone while driving means you’re 400 times more likely to be involved in a traffic collision, Kruse said.
“The bottom line, it’s not worth it,” he added.
For the press conference in Los Olivos, he was joined by Capt. Cindy Pontes from the Santa Barbara CHP office and Lt. Mike Brown from the Santa Maria office, along with CHP Coastal Division representatives and other officials, including local Assemblywoman Monique Limon.
“Arriving safely to your destination is our number one priority. As such, complying with our traffic laws is vital,” Kruse said, calling for people to avoid driving while distracted or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
The 2018 summer safety campaign, which includes education and enforcement, comes as community leaders learned about a grant to fund a Santa Ynez Valley Traffic Circulation and Safety Study.
“Monthly, if not weekly, we hear about near misses, serious-injury accidents, and sadly, fatalities along this highway,” Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann said. “Nothing sends shockwaves through our community like a death that didn’t have to be, that resulted from a few seconds of misdirected attention and carelessness.
“The what-ifs haunt family and friends forever,” she added.
She reminded drivers that Highway 154 is “a really dangerous 32-mile mountain road with steep drop-offs, blind curves and little cushion for mistakes.”
Traffic volumes are increasing along with assorted temptation to distract drivers. Alcohol, drugs and cannabis also can affect drivers, she said.
“Nothing can protect drivers more than driving attentively, defensively and with mindfulness,” she said. “Every time I get in the car, I think, ‘Pay attention. This is a lethal weapon.’”
She revealed plans to launch a new effort funded by a $300,000 grant from Caltrans with matching money of $25,000 each to come from the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians and the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG).
‘It will look at the issue regionally,” she said, adding that the effort will lead to a master plan for the triangle bordered by Highways 101, 246 and 154, with a focus on how one traffic measure would affect circulation.
“The success of this project is going to depend on community engagement, so please watch for the upcoming announcements,” said Hartmann, who also serves as chair of SBCAG.
She expects the effort will get underway in the fall or later, with plans to spread the word about how people can participate in the process.
“You can deal with something in one place and then it’s like whack-a-mole, it pops up somewhere else,” she said, adding that Caltrans suggested a regional study. “We really need try to understand what we can do and what the impacts are, and work closely with the community.”
While many residents are quick to blame visitors for bad driving seen locally, statistics show a fair number of locals contribute to the problem by speeding and breaking other laws.
In the year ending April 1, CHP officers based in Santa Barbara and Buellton issued 22,000 traffic citations and investigated 1,511 traffic collisions just on Highways 101 and 154.
They also made 461 DUI arrests in the same period.
An arrest for driving under the influence can be costly — more than $25,000 including high-risk insurance, lawyer fees, fines, impound charges and more, the CHP said.
Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, said the key is prevention.
“The rule of thumb is, if you have to ask someone if they’re OK to drive, they probably aren’t,” Jackson said.
Caltrans District 5 spokesman Jim Shivers noted the recent safety projects to Highway 154, including installation of a roundabout and passing lanes.
“Caltrans engineers design projects to the best of their ability, but there is no design element that can combat the decisions that drivers make,” he said.
Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.