The widely scattered residents of Cuyama Valley have come together as a united force for a common goal — to improve safety on Highway 166, where they say traffic has increased and with it the risk of deadly crashes.
Residents say the increase in traffic has taken place over the last 10 months, and they believe it’s an indirect impact from the 1/9 Debris Flow in Montecito.
To gain some leverage, the residents are using the Cuyama Valley Community Association to drive a petition asking Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol for two improvements they believe would make it safer to drive the highway.
That effort is what brought CHP Officer Efrem Moore to attend his second association meeting Wednesday night.
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“There’s nothing wrong with the road,” Moore said as he drove east from Santa Maria in a black-and-white Ford Interceptor. “It’s impatient drivers.”
As with every two-lane, undivided highway in California, the speed limit on Highway 166 is 55 mph. But a lot of big-rigs on the highway travel slower than that, especially on the steep grades and through the twisting S-curves.
Moore said that leads to frustrated drivers who pass where it isn’t safe.
Drivers push their cars to high speeds to make the pass, then continue to cruise above the speed limit to make up for lost time.
“It all comes down to us as drivers, just being patient,” Moore said. “Leave an extra 20 minutes early, or 10 minutes early. Just take your time and get there when you get there. Be safe.”
Before long, Moore’s Interceptor rolled up behind a line of slow-moving vehicles — a big-rig in the lead, a passenger car, two more big-rigs and two more passenger vehicles.
“This is a situation where drivers get impatient,” Moore said. “You’ve got three big-rigs, (with) a double yellow line, doing 49 mph. People think they can get past the big-rig — really, two big-rigs — only to get behind a third.”
Moore’s description was prescient. But instead of a passenger car, the third big-rig kicked out to pass coming out of a left-hand curve into a long, straight incline. It is a legal passing area. The problem: A passenger car was coming the other way.
The oncoming car slowed rapidly to a stop and pulled off the highway as the passing big-rig rolled on.
“I think I’ll go talk to this guy,” Moore said as he hit his lights and siren.
After issuing the trucker a citation for passing without sufficient space, Moore climbed back into his Interceptor.
“That’s a prime example of what goes on along this road,” he said. “A big-rig driver who’s unfamiliar with the road. He thought he had enough room.”
Inexperience was likely another factor. The driver only had his commercial license two months.
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CHP officers from the Santa Maria Area Office patrol Highway 166 east all the way to the Kern County Line and west to Guadalupe in addition to south on Highway 101 as far as Twin Oaks, a few miles past Los Alamos.
It’s a lot of territory to cover, and although an officer is assigned to patrol Highway 166 each day, he or she might not make it halfway to New Cuyama or even onto the highway at all if there is a lot of activity in Santa Maria or another area.
Moore said very few citations for unsafe passing are written on Highway 166.
“We received a grant specifically for (Highway) 166, both east and west, for extra patrols,” Moore said. “But it’s such a large, long roadway, we can’t be at the right place at the right time (to catch unsafe passing). We get what we can when we can.”
The vast majority of citations are written for speeding.
“I’m always shocked at the speeds I see on this highway,” Moore said while his radar unit beeped as each oncoming car swam into view. “I’ve seen speeds from 55 to 105.”
The highest speed he witnessed was 150.
On Oct. 23, 2016, Moore was westbound on Highway 166 just before 6:30 p.m. when an eastbound 2008 Kawasaki blew past him, clocked in excess of 150 mph by his radar.
“When he saw me, he went down on the tank, like he had some more to go,” Moore said, twisting his wrist like a motorcyclist opening the throttle. “I turned on the lights and went after him, but at 150, he was gone.
“Later, we found some skid marks where he went off and down into a gully,” he said. “It was a fatal.”
Up ahead, an oncoming car came into view from around a curve, and the radar unit beeped a different tone.
“Here we go,” he said. “This guy’s at 79.”
Moore slowed down and flipped on the emergency lights as the silver Nissan Sentra decelerated past his unit and pulled over. After making a three-point U-turn, he stopped behind the Sentra.
A few minutes of conversation, a citation and Moore is headed east again.
“Some people just don’t know what the speed limit is out here,” he said. “They think doing 70 mph is reasonable.”
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As the public information officer for the Santa Maria CHP, Moore now spends most of his time behind a desk. But before that, he spent plenty of time on patrol, including along Highway 166, and saw more than just speeding drivers.
Arriving in New Cuyama, just a few dozen yards from where the Community Association is meeting, Moore points out gouges in the pavement from a fatal collision he witnessed in May.
Moore was following a westbound Freightliner semitruck pulling a tanker trailer when an eastbound Honda Civic crossed a two-way left–turn lane and smashed head-on into the big-rig.
Neither the driver nor his passenger were wearing safety belts.
“One person (was ejected),” he said. “I thought there was only one person in the car, but the driver was still inside. He was crushed. It was an hour and a half out (from Santa Maria), so I had to wait at least an hour for help.
“That was a lot to deal with, so this is a welcome break,” he said of his desk job.
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Residents’ passion for the Cuyama Valley is evidenced by the 30 people who show up for the Community Association meeting.
Originally formed to develop a management plan for the Cuyama Valley Groundwater Basin, which is in critical overdraft, the association has expanded its scope to other issues, like highway safety.
“This got started because of a petition from Exxon Mobil to put more oil trucks on the road — 70 more,” said Lynn Carlisle, executive director of the Cuyama Valley Resource Center, where the meeting is being held. “That just seemed to make a bad situation worse.”
When the January debris flow in Montecito shut down Highway 101 for 10 days, Highway 166 was one of the routes initially promoted as an alternative for northbound Southern California motorists to reach coastal destinations beyond Santa Barbara.
“When (Highway) 101 was closed, we had five major accidents in 10 days,” Carlisle said.
Cuyama Valley residents say during that 10-day period, Southern California drivers “discovered” Highway 166, and after Highway 101 reopened, many of them continued to use the often winding, two-lane highway as their route of choice.
The result is an increase not only in traffic but also in the number of crashes, near misses and speeders on the highway, making it more dangerous for those passing through as well as locals.
“State Route 166 is a very busy trucking route,” said Benton Kelly, president of the Cuyama Valley Community Association. “But there are no passing lanes, very few turnout places and no signs for turnouts ahead.
“There’s only one (CHP) officer assigned per day,” he said. “We’d like to see another officer assigned.”
Directed to the CHP’s State Route 166 Taskforce, the petition asks for signs to be installed along the highway to notify drivers where turnouts are located and urging motorists to be courteous and use them.
“It would benefit everybody, the community and the truck drivers, if there was a safe way to pull over,” Kelly said.
Moore said installing the signs would be Caltrans’ responsibility.
“They have the signs,” he said. “They’re already made up. They have a stockpile of them.”
But he noted Caltrans would probably require that any marked turnouts be paved.
Although there are a number of level, gravel-covered turnouts along both sides of the highway, none have been paved with asphalt.
The petition also asks the CHP to assign at least one officer to patrol Highway 166 full time.
“It might make a difference if they can get someone out here every day,” Moore said.
But he said the problem with having a unit patrol Highway 166 full time is the limited number of officers allocated to the Santa Maria Area, which is ultimately determined by state funding.
“The grant we got was $90,000,” he said. “Most of that went for overtime. … To put officers out here … means paying for mileage plus officers’ pay.”
The petitions Kelly and Carlisle turned over to Moore carried the signatures of 300 people, gathered in just one month in a community with an estimated population of 1,800 people — not all of them adults — widely scattered across the Valley.
Moore promised to deliver the petitions to the task force.
“It’s a lot more powerful than to have just one person say ‘we need turnouts,’” he said.