Monday, 17 June 2024

Officials investigate dangerous stretch of highway

The area near mile post marker 44.19 on Highway 20 has been the site of six serious collisions over the last two years. Courtesy photo.



CLEARLAKE OAKS – As Highway 20 winds out of Lake County, it takes drivers past Walker Ridge Road and mile post marker 44.19, an area that is getting extra attention from officials due to a high number of collisions, including a fatal one last year.

In the past two years six crashes have occurred at the spot, just east of Walker Ridge Road and across the highway from the Abbott and Turkey Run mercury mines, roughly 15 miles east of Clearlake Oaks.

The most recent crash – which occurred on March 16 – sent two women to area hospitals following an extensive rescue effort, as Lake County News has reported.

Northshore Fire Protection District Battalion Chief Pat Brown told Lake County News that there have been six crashes at that site over the last two years. Area firefighters have done a total of four such low-angle rope rescues in the area, where a steep embankment comes off the road. That was the case on March 16.

Phil Frisbie, a spokesman for Caltrans, confirmed that there have been six collisions at the spot, including the March 16 crash.

All of the collisions, Frisbie said, occurred when the road was wet or icy.

He added that speed appears to have been the primary cause of all of the crashes previous to the March 16 incident. The CHP has offered no preliminary finding on that crash's cause yet.

Frisbie said the speed limit in the area is 55 miles per hour, but there is an advisory sign which cautions a slower speed. It's easy to go above the posted speed unless one is breaking or downshifting, he noted.

“Last year we performed an initial investigation of the area,” he said.

As a result, last November Caltrans installed enhanced signage for eastbound travelers and changed the speed advisory sign, reducing the suggested speed from 40 miles per hour down to 35 miles per hour and making the sign larger, Frisbie said. In addition, they added a right arrow to try to get people's attention.

The six collisions is “above what we would expect for that area,” he said.

“That's why it came up on our radar this last year when we started the investigation,” said Frisbie.

A fatal collision took place in the area on Memorial Day 2008, as Lake County News reported last year.

Debra Curtis of Suisun City was driving eastbound mid-afternoon when she lost control of her vehicle during a short rain shower, according to the initial CHP report.

Curtis' Ford Escape spun out and hit a Lexus RX300 driven by Delores Zeni of Santa Rosa. Zeni's passenger, 72-year-old Judith Tilt of Sebastopol, died at the scene.

Both Delores Zeni and Robert Zeni of Santa Rosa were flown to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital with major injuries. Curtis, also suffering major injuries, was flown to Enloe Hospital in Chico.

CHP eventually ruled that the collision's cause was unsafe speed for conditions, said CHP Commander Mark Loveless.

Curtis is now facing prosecution for the crash, according to Chief Deputy District Attorney Richard Hinchcliff.

He said Curtis, 50, was charged with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence. The maximum time she could receive upon conviction is a year in the county jail.

Hinchcliff said he couldn't discuss any previous record Curtis might have, and said such issues are only taken into consideration at the time of sentencing, not when a charging decision is being made.

Neither Hinchcliff nor Loveless had a determination about Curtis' alleged speed at the time of the crash.

Curtis' case is set to be in court April 6 for disposition or setting, said Hinchcliff.

The law firm Carter and Carter of Lower Lake is defending Curtis.

Partner Angela Carter believes that it's the roadway that's the issue – not Curtis' driving.

“We're aware of the problems with the roadway and we believe that once we can prove what's going on with the roadway that it will vindicate our client,” she said.

Frisbie said Caltrans' investigation into the area is continuing.

Loveless said CHP is providing the May 2008 crash report to Caltrans for its investigation.

“We're going to be testing the pavement to see if there is anything we need to do or anything that we can do to enhance the performance of that pavement,” Frisbie said.

They'll also look at other sign improvements, he said.

E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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