Is Highway 17 That Dangerous or Is It Just Laurel Curve?

Tight curves like this one, just north of Summit Road overpass, cause most accidents on Highway 17. In 2010 almost 90% of all accidents on 17 occurred at the notorious Laurel Curve. Photo courtesy of Stan Shebs. (March 2004)
Tight curves like this one, just north of Summit Road overpass, cause most accidents on Highway 17. In 2010 almost 90% of all accidents on 17 occurred at the notorious Laurel Curve. Photo: Courtesy of Stan Shebs, March 2004

The narrow lanes and dangerously tight curves of California’s Highway 17 have earned it ominous nicknames like “Killer 17” and “Blood Alley”. In the mid-60s philanthropist Harvey West tried to slow down drivers by erecting shocking billboards with ghastly red coffins and skeletons along this stretch of highway connecting San Jose to Santa Cruz. He organized pickets to stand along the highway’s narrow shoulder displaying signs warning commuters of their imminent death. There’s no doubt this is a dangerous, mountainous route — but does the whole highway deserve to be vilified or is it just one particularly tight curve that is to blame?

Laurel Curve is responsible for more deaths than any other section of this twisting highway. From 2004-2010 there were 2,092 crashes on the Santa Cruz county side of Highway 17 and 26 percent of them were at Laurel Curve. Even more chilling is that for this same seven year span, 73% of all fatal accidents on the entire length of Highway 17 occurred at Laurel Curve. In addition to vehicle collisions, Laurel Curve is also a high collision site for mountain lions, endangering both drivers and the big cats.

According to a study in 2006, about 20,000 cars per day drive Highway 17. America's deadliest highway, I-95, sees on average 72,000. Photo courtesy of Richard Masoner. (April, 2009)
According to a study in 2006, about 20,000 cars per day drive Highway 17. America’s deadliest highway, I-95, sees on average 72,000. Photo: Courtesy of Richard Masoned, April 2009

The Town Between Two Tunnels

The route through the Santa Cruz Mountains has been dangerous since the 1800s, long before Highway 17 existed. Stagecoaches traversed the steep, narrow trail that connected Santa Clara County to Santa Cruz. Many lost control coming around a tight bend, passengers saying their prayers as the wagon toppled over, horses flailing to keep from tumbling down the mountain side.

Postcard of downtown Laurel, circa 1905. Photo courtesy of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History.
Postcard of downtown Laurel, circa 1905. Photo: Courtesy of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History

The construction of the South Pacific Railroad in 1876 made the commute much easier and safer. Today’s deadly Laurel Curve was once the site of an old railroad station and a peaceful town named Laurel. The town thrived due to its location between Glenwood Tunnel and the infamous Wright’s Tunnel — then the second-longest railroad tunnel in California and a horrific death trap for close to 50 Chinese laborers. During construction of the two tunnels in the late 1800s, Laurel became a bustling supply depot and camp for the workers. Years later, redwood from the town’s lumber mill owned and operated by the prosperous entrepreneur Frederick Hihn, was used to rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. Laurel lasted as a railroad town until the giant storm of 1940 closed the railroad line.

Over 70 years later, Highway 17 has now made this spot famous not for rebuilding lives as it did in 1906, but for taking them.

Almost a 14 Lane Freeway

In 1965, shortly after Harvey West’s protests, the state poured money into multiple safety projects on Highway 17. Laurel Curve was a top priority and received new guard rails as well as a $4,500 left turn lane. In 1971 the mountainous road came close to advancing from a four lane highway to an eight lane freeway, with the intent of increasing to 14 lanes if needed. Santa Cruz residents disliked the idea to say the least, but the final vote by the Board of Supervisors was close: 3 to 2 in opposition to the additional lanes.

Traffic Congestion Increases and so do the Accidents

From 1981 to 1991, traffic congestion on Highway 17 increased more than 50% and with more cars, usually comes more accidents. The Safe on 17 Task Force came together in 1998 with the goal of reducing collisions through increased enforcement, road improvements and public education. More than 23.5 million was spent on the Santa Cruz county side alone to build retaining walls, improve drainage, widen road shoulders and replace guard rails. This money appeared to be well spent: From 1996-1998 the average yearly rate of injury/fatality crashes on Highway 17 was 249. From 2000 to 2013 the average was 147.

Data Source: SAFE ON 17, Highway 17 Safety Corridor, 2013 Annual Report Prepared by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission.
Data Source: SAFE ON 17, Highway 17 Safety Corridor, 2013 Annual Report Prepared by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission.
Data Source: SAFE ON 17, Highway 17 Safety Corridor, 2013 Annual Report Prepared by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission. Note: 2011 had zero fatal accidents.
Data Source: SAFE ON 17, Highway 17 Safety Corridor, 2013 Annual Report Prepared by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission. Note: 2011 had zero fatal accidents.

Until 2012, Laurel Curve had a break in the cement barrier to allow left hand turns and this break was a well known danger. In 2010 about 150 crashes took place on this barrier-less stretch by the month of September — almost 90% of all crashes that year on the entire highway.

In March of 2012 the driver of a Nissan Altima lost control on the wet pavement and swerved into oncoming traffic. This fatal two car accident resulted in the loss of one man’s life and pushed Caltrans to install a temporary median barrier within days at Laurel Curve and a high-friction surface treatment within four months. Over two years later, no more crossover deaths have occurred. Laurel Curve was revamped in 2015 and the left turns are permanently out. Hopefully this curve will not be causing so many accidents in the future.

Laurel curve looking south in 2016. Until 2012 you could make a left at about where the white van is. Photo: Julia Gaudinski/Mobile Ranger.
Laurel curve looking south in 2016. Until 2012, you could make a left at about where the white van is. Photo: Julia Gaudinski/Mobile Ranger

Where Does Highway 17 Rank in the 100 Deadliest U.S. Highways?

Highway 17 is obviously a dangerous road and when driving around Laurel Curve you should not be tempting the gods. And yet … a ranking of the 100 deadliest highways in America includes six in California but Highway 17 isn’t one of them. When you look at the fatal number of accidents per mile (calculated using stats from 2004-2008), the deadliest is I-95 in Florida at 1.73; the other top 99 are all above 0.45 accidents per mile. Highway 17?  Using the same methods, it comes in at 0.1 accidents per mile. And that’s the number before the installation of the barrier at Laurel Curve. Of course the number of drivers plays a role — average daily traffic on I-95 is 72,000 vehicles and can be up to 300,000 during peak hours. Highway 17 is less than half that, about 20,000 as of 2006. It still puts things in perspective and with the Safe on 17 Task Force, hopefully this highway will never make the list.

Laurel Curve looking north in 2015. Photo: Julia Gaudinski/Mobile Ranger.
Laurel Curve looking north in 2015 after being re-engineered. Photo: Julia Gaudinski/Mobile Ranger

Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour

This piece is part of the Highway 17 Tour. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.

takeTheTourbluetopoFontITC

Go to Mobile Ranger Guides in the Apple App Store
Go to Mobile Ranger Guides in the Google Play Store
  1. Sources Used



About The Author

Molly Lautamo is a content strategist and writer in Santa Cruz, California. She loves exploring and researching her surroundings and then writing about her discoveries to inspire others to get out and explore too. You can check out more of Molly's writing at mollylautamo.com.

Related posts

11 Comments

    1. Ranger Lautamo

      Thanks, Russ! I agree, people definitely need to slow down. It’s hard to say what is the best solution – maybe a combination of public education and warning signs although some think the signs are distracting and cause more accidents. It’s not an easy task for Caltrans, that’s for sure!

      Reply
  1. Chip

    The most dangerous section of freeway in Cali…I owned a tow truck Co. In the 70’s in Santa Cruz and covered hiway 17 to cloud nine….scary memories helping motorists up there…nice artical…

    Reply
  2. Tom Scully

    I drove highway 17 to work as a SJ firefighter from 1973 to 2000. I can say without reservation that the road is much safer now with the CalTrans improvements. I used to stop at a dozen accidents a year and in the latter part of my career none. Kudos to CalTrans and their often contractor Granite Construction.

    Reply
  3. colleen anibas

    my mother was one of the owners of the cats restaurant when it was opened in 1967. there was a sign in the restaurant for years that said “closed sundays for love of god and fear of the freeway.”

    Reply
  4. Pete

    I wonder how many of the drivers who caused these accidents are not locals, unfamiliar with the road, and how many are locals or familiar with the road. The road has some really tight turns that can surprise and overwhelm drivers not familiar with the road.
    The fact that we are talking about this road is all is a testament to the design “errors” built into this road and the lack of driving skills in most drivers on the road (driving too fast, and too close to each other). Im very happy to say that the improvements I have seen in the last 10-15 years has really improved safety, but it is still a road that demands far more than your average road.

    Reply
  5. Elizabeth Ingram

    Nice article, but you need an areal map showing exactly where the curves are. BIG MOODY is a bear. It’s just not clear along the highway what the speed limit is and at the summit, the signs are often covered by foliage or big rigs. More signs warning drivers about the upcoming fish-hook (ramp leading to Hwy 1 from Hwy 17 to Watsonville and Monterey). Another very dangerous spot is the “dark area where the world falls away” between State Park and Freedom Blvd overpasses – both north and south bound lanes are a death trap with people flying fast into stopped traffic. Let’s hope the powers at be are listening…

    Reply
    1. Crissa

      There are signs at every corner what the corner speed is and signs at every major onramp what the speed limit is. And there’s flashing signs with the major corner speed as well. What do you mean, it isn’t clear what the speed limit is?

      If you are’t aware, you shouldn’t be driving. Sit in the right lane, give three or four seconds, and drive 35. That;s the safe, no brakes needed speed. It’s listed on the speed limit sign for trucks.

      Reply
  6. Kathryn

    Very interesting article! I knew two people who were killed on 17 and I, myself, was in an accident on “Dead Man’s Curve” when I was a youngster back in 1964. My dad was taking my brother, sister, me, and our black lab, Butch, to the beach for the day. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt in the accident, but we were all shaken up pretty badly.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *