GRANTS PASS — Before last month, a 1.5-mile section of the Redwood Highway near Kerby was already one of the deadliest stretches of road on one of the deadliest highways in the country.
The section of road is between milepost 23.5 and 25. In February, two motorists were killed in crashes there barely two weeks apart. That pushed the death toll on that stretch of road from four to six since 2007.
In 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatal Accident Reporting System ranked the Redwood Highway, in its entirety, the 13th most deadly in the country.
“What we have is a highway where people tend to go really fast, and it catches people off guard,” said Gary Leaming, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation. “They hit the corner with some of those curves, and they go into the other lane.”
The two most recent fatal wrecks were head-on crashes.
On Feb. 20, a GMC Safari and Toyota Prius collided just before 7 p.m, killing the driver of the Prius, 69-year-old Deborah Newell of Cave Junction.
The other driver, a 19-year-old man from Ohio, suffered serious injuries in the crash. Police did not say which driver caused the crash.
They did say intoxicants were not believed to be a factor.
Less than two weeks earlier and barely a stone’s throw up the road, a 35-year-old Josephine County man was killed when another motorist came across the centerline on Sauers Flat near Kerby.
The other motorist, a 46-year-old Medford man, was badly injured but survived. No criminal charges were immediately filed.
Between 2007 and 2016, ODOT records show that 43 people died on Oregon’s 40-mile section of the highway, which goes all the way to the California coast and is also known as Highway 199. Eight were pedestrians.
Over that same period, another 180 people were injured. Eighty percent of the crashes occurred when the road was dry and 72 percent happened during daylight hours.
Illinois Valley Fire Chief Dennis Hoke said that, in general, the most devastating accidents tend to happen at night.
As with Leaming, he blames erratic driving on a lack of traffic enforcement.
“People are driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol because there’s no penalty for doing that when you have no enforcement,” Hoke said. “They drive like crazy and cause accidents.”
OSP, historically a highway patrol agency, is stretched thin in Josephine County. Due to budget cuts in 2012 that ended 24-hour patrols by the Josephine County Sheriff’s Office, a handful of state troopers are the only law enforcement presence in the county at night outside of Grants Pass.
“Could it be patrolled more? Yeah, it could,” said OSP Sgt. Jeff Proulx. “But because of the budget cuts to the sheriff’s department, we’ve had to pick up some of their responsibilities.”
In 2015 and 2016, the Redwood Highway received safety improvements from the Applegate River to Cave Junction.
The improvements included new striping, center line rumble strips, recessed pavement markers, site markers and reflective shield markers.
Because 2017 records are not yet available, only time will tell how much of an effect it will have on yearly crash statistics.
The rural upgrades followed a 10-year multi-phase safety project in which ODOT spent millions on improving driving conditions from Rogue Community College to Grants Pass.