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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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- America’s 100 Deadliest Highways. May 31, 2010. The Daily Beast Website.
- CHP wants median barrier at Highway 17’s lethal Laurel Curve. Mercury News Website. Gary Richards. March 22, 2012.
- Dead man’s curve: Highway 17 horrors revisited. Santa Cruz Sentinel Website. Don Miller. March 16, 2012.
- Dangerous Highway 17 curve gets a new divide. Register-Pajaronian Website. Tarmo Hannula. March 24, 2012.
- Ghost Towns of the Santa Cruz Mountains by John V. Young. Paper Vision Press; 1979.
- Highway 17. SCCRTC website.
- Highway 17: The Road to Santa Cruz. Richard A. Beal. The Pacific Group; 1991.
- One year anniversary of barrier at Laurel Curve improvements prevent crossover collisions, saves lives. Santa Cruz Sentinel Website. Ramona Turner. March 19, 2013.
- Safe on 17 Fact Sheet. October 2009. SCCRTC website.
- SAFE ON 17, Highway 17 Safety Corridor, 2013 Annual Report Prepared by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission.
- Santa Cruz Trains: Laurel, Frederick Hihn’s little mountain town. Golden State Newspapers Website. Derek Whaley. November, 2014.
- 2006 Vehicle Occupancy Counts. SCCRTC website.
- I-95 Facts and Stats. I-95 Corridor Coalition Website.