Six motorcyclists have died while riding on Santiago Canyon Road since July of this year, alarming bikers and law enforcement alike. Local bikers say that the winding stretch of bucolic road is both alluring and extremely dangerous, and the recent spike in road fatalities have tragically confirmed this. Tim Grim, an aerospace executive from Lake Forest and an avid biker, said: “It kind of sucks you in. There are no cops. It’s got beautiful scenery. It’s a hop, skip and a jump outside of the city. But you’ve got to know your limits.”
The road dates back to the 1930s and has been a popular spot for bikers for decades. This has left many wondering why there’s been such a massive increase in motorcyclist fatalities over the past few months. Santiago Canyon Road runs only 11 miles and connects the 241 Toll road southeast to El Toro Road. With a lane going in each direction, it dips and meanders past upscale homes, imposing mountains, various horse stables, and the beautiful Irvine Lake. Since it was first laid in the 1930s, it has been maintained by the county. However, the road is now covered by several different police agencies, patrolling different stretches of the road. The Orange County Coroner’s Division records have come up with a worrying figure in the wake of the recent fatalities. The six fatalities on the road since July 2016 is nearly equal to the seven motorcycle-related deaths which have happened on Santiago Canyon Road since 2011.
Due to the road being covered by several different agencies, an investigation into the fatalities is being spread among them. Three of the crashes are being looked into by the California Highway Patrol, two are being investigated by the Orange County Sherriff’s Department, and one by the Orange Police Department. Though police say they’re doing everything in their power, none of the investigations are complete. It hasn’t yet been determined whether it was the motorcyclists or car drivers who were at fault. Investigators have said that they’re not looking at a common thread in the accidents, such as speeding or drink driving. “I don’t want to downplay the tragedies, but I also don’t want to give the impression that there’s a single reason they all happened,” said Sgt. Ray Wert, head of the Sheriff’s department traffic and auto theft bureau. He went on to say that the recent string of accidents isn’t a sign of some new safety hazard in the area.
Although the spike in deaths is certainly alarming, Santiago Canyon Road isn’t exactly the safest road in America. According to Shannon Widor, a spokesperson for Orange County Public Works, there have been at least seven accidents on the road during the last five years, involving all kinds of motor vehicles. Unsafe speed, right-of-way violations, and driving under the influence have all been among the most common factors in these incidents. 73 accidents over five years on a road that sees just 9,000 vehicles a day may sound pretty high for a multi-lane freeway or tollway. However, Widor and other traffic accident experts have come forward to say that these figures are actually lower than average when compared to other two-lane highways.
Cook’s Corner, A Popular Local Biker’s Bar (Wikimedia)
However, when motorcyclists were asked to weigh in on this, many of them seemed to disagree. “The traffic is dense enough that it can be difficult for cars and motorcycles to safely coexist.” said local Mike Peck, who regularly takes his Harley-Davidson CVO Ultra Limited down Santiago Canyon Road. “There are a lot of motorcycles and a lot of vehicle traffic.” Mike’s wife Karen, who regularly comes along on the back of his Harley, told reporters about various other hazards. “There are a lot of inexperienced riders,” she said. “They don’t know how to be defensive in their driving.” She added that drivers who are distracted by their cell phones, who drift out of their lanes into oncoming traffic, are also a big danger to motorcyclists using Santiago Canyon Road.
As with any traffic accident, speeding is a major contributing factor. “The speed limit is 55, but no one goes 55 here.” Said Florentino Olivera, one of the many CHP officers who patrols the area. Orange County Sheriff’s Sgt Wert also pointed out that the unpredictable terrain can also be a big challenge to riders, especially after dark. Santiago Canyon Road is the longest stretch of unlit road in the Orange County Area. “Add in hills and curves, then it’s an area where if motorists aren’t careful they’re going to get hit.” He commented. Others lay more of the blame on the drivers using the road, rather than the environment itself. “There would be fewer crashes on Santiago Canyon Road if motorcyclists and vehicle drivers simply paid more attention to each other,” said local woman Joanne Hubble, who’s lived in the canyon for over 35 years. “Carelessness is huge. This is not a forgiving road. You are going to die if you are on a motorcycle and hit by a car. The pavement doesn’t care.”
As most people are aware, the tragic deaths that have happened in this one isolated area are just the tip of the iceberg. NHTSA ran a study indicating that roughly 72 out of 100,000 registered motorcycles ended up in fatal crashes, compared to 13 out of 100,000 cars. Motorcyclist deaths are nearly 30 times more frequent than drivers of other vehicles, and riders below the age of 40 are 36 times more likely to be killed than people of the same age operating different vehicles. This issue isn’t isolated to America either. In the UK in 2014, there were 5558 serious accidents involving motorcyclists. 339 were killed in reported road accidents, and 5289 were seriously injured. In recent years the massive risk associated with riding a motorcycle has pushed countless people to look for an accident compensation claim solicitor for motorbike accident.
The victims of the Santiago Canyon Road accidents showed a range of ages and backgrounds. Christopher Carlson, 65, died when his motorcycle collided with a Toyota Tundra. Though the investigation is ongoing, drugs or alcohol are not believed to have played a part in the death. Navpreet Singh, 19, died when his motorcycle hit a sedan near Silverado Canyon Road. Singh was pronounced dead at the scene, and no other injuries were reported. Jose Briseneo, the driver of the sedan which struck Singh, was not charged. Michael Hogan, 58, was killed after the motorcycle he was riding hit a truck near Modjeska Grade Road. Kurt Wizner, the truck driver in question, was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence, according to officials from the Sheriff’s department. Arthur Bustos, 50, died in hospital two weeks after his bike was hit by a car, waiting on the westbound side of Santiago Canyon Road. According to Orange County Police, a car in oncoming traffic made a U-turn, forcing Bustos and a passenger to swerve haphazardly into another car. The passenger with Bustos’ was treated for serious, though non-fatal injuries, and the incident is still under investigation. Drew Ketter, 55, was killed in a hit-and-run near the intersection of Falcon Street and Santiago Canyon Road. His wife Joanne was a passenger on the motorcycle, and suffered serious injuries but survived. Following the incident, police searched the area using both helicopters and officers on the ground in an attempt to find the driver. The next day, a man was arrested accused of being the driver but was later released without charge.
Main Image: Santiago Canyon Road (Flickr)