Highway 199 ... A Road to Ruin
Late on a sunny afternoon Aug. 15, the Fetty family gathered at a home in southeast Medford. Adult siblings and their spouses congregated around the kitchen island and in the living room, forced out of their seats only by their children running through the house and into the backyard.
Anna Fetty watched, being careful not to laugh too hard at any of her grandchildren’s antics. It had been only 11 days since a car crash on Highway 199 had left her with broken ribs and a fractured sternum. Any rapid breathing sent shock waves of pain radiating throughout her body — pain that prevented her from fully sobbing over the death of her husband of nearly 20 years in that same accident.
Guy Fetty was killed in the Aug. 4 head-on collision with a white Subaru Impreza that had crossed into their northbound lane on Hayes Hill near Milepost 15, one of the most accident-prone miles on one of Oregon’s most dangerous highways.
“The last thing that happened that I remember, he literally put his hand on my leg, and he glanced over at me,” Anna Fetty said, struggling to keep her words coming. “And he said, ‘I love you. We’ve got this.’ And the lights went out.”
Redwood Highway, named for the stately, massive trees that line its curvy boundaries near the California border, is the route to coastal escapes for thousands of Southern Oregonians. For rural Josephine County residents, it’s a commuter road to and from work. For some, the highway is as close as the end of their driveways.
But Highway 199 is drawing increasing attention from the Oregon Department of Transportation, Oregon State Police and community organizers in the Illinois Valley. The reason is simple and painful: Crashes on Highway 199 are more likely to be deadly than those on Oregon’s busier roads.
“If you look at like highways, you can make a determination that way,” said Gary Leaming, spokesman for ODOT.
As the Fetty family gathered to mourn and celebrate Guy that Thursday afternoon in August, on either side of Milepost 38 of Highway 199 — between O’Brien and the California border, 23 miles from where Guy Fetty died — traffic was once again at a standstill.
Keith Willis, a 58-year-old from Cave Junction, had crossed into the northbound lane on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle, slamming into a silver Audi driven by a 25-year-old man. Emergency responders pronounced Willis dead at the scene.
“It’s sad,” Leaming said. “Those are real stories. They’re not just a TV story, a quick read ... people are distraught.”
A problem road
As word spread across social media about the Aug. 4 crash that killed Guy Fetty, commenters echoed similar themes.
“So many accidents lately,” one Facebook user wrote on the Illinois Valley Fire District page.
“WHY does this happen so many times,” another person wrote on the Rural-Metro Fire page.
Some of the people reading about Guy’s death had witnessed other crashes, such as the two-car collision that killed Keith Jones and his dog June 7. Oregon State Police said the 69-year-old from Crescent City likely suffered a medical episode that caused him to cross into oncoming traffic. Carol Worden, the other driver involved, survived.
The discourse mirrors warnings given in vaguely sourced listicles that claim Highway 199 is one of the most dangerous roads in the country.
ODOT officials push back against those articles, saying the danger gets blown out of proportion. Coastal Highway 101, Leaming will point out, has as many crashes as Highway 199. Interstate 5 sees far more traffic and more crashes every year. So does Highway 62, another major Southern Oregon thoroughfare.
But officials admit that the number of people dying on the Redwood Highway in Oregon each year is cause for concern — and action.
Data that ODOT’s Southwest Regional Manager Frank Reading is presenting across the state next month shows that 24 fatalities occurred on Highway 199 in Oregon — a stretch that is 41.6 miles long — between 2011 and 2015.
For comparison, Highway 62 is 103 miles long and had 11 fatalities in that same period. Highway 42, running between Highway 101 and Green, just south of Roseburg, had 14 deaths. Highway 38, another coastal route, had 12.
While the statewide crash rate is 1.7 crashes for every million vehicular miles traveled, Highway 199 has a rate of 2.15 for every million vehicular miles.
From 2016 through 2018, another 17 people died on Highway 199 in Oregon. And four (corrected; see correction below) have been killed so far in 2019.
That makes 45 deaths on 41 miles of one Oregon road, in less than a decade.
Wreckage by the numbers
Milepost 15 is one of the most accident-prone spots on the highway, according to a decade of ODOT data meticulously mapping every crash by cause, severity, milepost and environmental factors including weather, time of day and even day of the week.
Stretches where the highway intersects with cross-streets in towns such as Kerby, Selma and Cave Junction tend to see more crashes, the data show.
The highest number of crashes, nearly 85, were recorded between miles 28 and 29, where the highway runs through Cave Junction.
Many of the crashes are the result of improper lane changes, when an impatient driver tried to pass. In the Cave Junction area, many drivers failed to obey traffic control devices or see pedestrians, according to ODOT data.
Sometimes, the behaviors are hard to explain if you’re not the driver, Leaming said.
“Where does personal responsibility as a driver come in?” he asked. “And how do you change driver behavior on a highway that, if you make a mistake, has serious consequences, not only for you, but the people who are coming the other way?”
Some out-of-towners can avoid the problem by avoiding the road. For those who live in the Illinois Valley and rely on the highway to get to and from work and other needs in Grants Pass, that isn’t an option.
Kate Dwyer is among them. She’s advocated for better road safety in the valley throughout her nearly three decades living there.
She drives from her home in the Illinois Valley to Grants Pass for work multiple days a week. As a member of Illinois Valley Community Development, she has worked with Leaming and Oregon State Police to discuss possible solutions to the high deadly crash rate.
Locals and out-of-towners contribute in different ways to the crashes on the road, she said.
“You’ve got an influx of tourists ... juxtaposed with people who know the road so well that they may drive unsafely,” she said.
Dwyer said part of what contributes to poor driving is that teenagers living in the Illinois Valley don’t have ready access to driver’s education.
Classes fill up quickly, she said, and are held at Rogue Community College’s Redwood Campus in Grants Pass, never at the Kerby annex. That adds more trouble and expense to a course that many families in Oregon already are struggling to afford.
The region also experiences a lack of law enforcement, which makes it harder to police bad behaviors that show up in the crash data, from speeding to driving under the influence. The Josephine County Sheriff’s Office, small and strapped for funding, relies on Oregon State Police to help out on calls for service.
OSP Sgt. Jeff Proulx said that officers have to split time between functions in Josephine County especially.
“When we’re handling county calls, we’re not able to enforce the ... traffic laws on (Highway) 199 as much as we would like to,” he said.
Some troopers at the Grants Pass office have retired in recent years, while others have been transferred to different assignments, which has contributed to the shrinking staff, Proulx said.
OSP has seen a declining number of troopers agency-wide, prompting calls for increased funding. A bill that sought to increase numbers of troopers died in committee during the last legislative session.
“Any time we increase our numbers, we increase safety, because we’ve got more people doing the job,” Proulx said.
A path forward
Three factors ODOT considers when improving road safety all start with the same letter: engineering, education and enforcement.
“Typically, you want to have those all balanced,” Leaming said. “It’s kind of like a three-legged stool. If one of them is out of whack, then you’re not level. You’re going to fall off the stool.”
State and regional officials and local residents come together to try to strike that balance, through meetings and other means to gather feedback and ideas.
It would be hard to detect much ire between the officials and local residents. On all sides, people say the other partners seem to be doing their best with the available resources.
Dwyer said that if anything, local residents are most bothered by drivers’ choices.
“We do see a lot of really reckless, dangerous behaviors on that road,” she said.
But all three Es can be leveraged to mitigate the potential deadliness of individual drivers’ choices.
Engineering falls mostly to ODOT. And even though some people, including members of the Fetty family, said they haven’t seen noticeable improvements to Highway 199’s design, the department has invested $55 million in the road in the past 15 years.
In 2005, the focus was on where Highway 199 meets highways 99 and 238 — a high-frequency crash zone in Grants Pass — where $12 million was allocated.
Striping and reflector posts as well as a guardrail were added in 2005 from Hayes Hill to O’Brien — the stretch where Guy Fetty died — for another $790,000.
The highway doesn’t have median dividers along much of it, especially south of Grants Pass. Many crashes happen when vehicles drift into oncoming traffic.
That’s how Ryan Risely, who had recently moved from Lexington, Kentucky, to California, was killed June 2. Police said Risely lost control of the Nissan Frontier he was driving north, striking a southbound driver. Risely, 26, was pronounced dead at the scene, just south of Selma.
The engineering improvement projects are spread out across different parts of the highway, as crashes are not concentrated to a specific few miles.
That’s one of the reasons why ODOT for years has explored the possibility of establishing a safety corridor, which establishes heavier law enforcement and steeper fines for violations.
One of the criteria to establish a safety corridor is a “reasonable length” of roadway that can be designated. With crashes so widely distributed, a safety corridor might have to be inordinately long to be effective.
That could also put additional strain on law enforcement, which for now doesn’t have the resources to up traffic patrols on the road.
Police and ODOT hope that the increased state funding will bring more chances to establish a safety corridor.
Proulx said the agency is aware of additional needs in Grants Pass. A class of 31 recruits training at the Department of Public Safety and Standards will soon be assigned to offices around the state.
OSP Captain Timothy Fox said that one of those recruits is assigned to the Grants Pass office.
“Are we going to see it right away?” Proulx asked about the impacts of potential increased funding. “No, but we’re planning for the future.”
Dwyer, while continuing to advocate for driver’s education, also thinks that a speed trap just before the highway hits the Kerby area would be a way to teach drivers about speeding.
“It’s going to take all three of those Es to solve this problem,” she said.
In the short term, ODOT is rolling out electronic signs in preparation for Labor Day weekend traffic, to remind people of the potentially deadly cost of driving distracted or under the influence.
Leaming couldn’t say exactly what the signs might display, but he said one possibility is to tell drivers like it is: that five people have died on the road this year, and they should all try not to be the next.
Later this year, the department might make use of a crashed-car display, which officials send around the state to use as an educational resource, telling the story of what happened to the vehicle.
Both serve as reminders to drivers of what’s at stake.
“We’re desperate,” Leaming said. “And we’re frustrated. We’re going to do anything we can to try to get people’s attention.”
Anna Fetty hopes that knowing her family’s story will make people more careful, even though she counts her husband among the most cautious drivers.
“He drove like an old man — the speed limit or less, both hands on the wheel,” she said.
Still, Anna said, you can be the most cautious driver and still be affected by crashes, especially on Highway 199.
It might take her some time to feel up to driving past milepost 15 and Hayes Hill again, she said. But Anna doesn’t think she’ll avoid Redwood Highway forever.
“It’s gonna be hard to pass where this happened,” she said, her voice breaking. “But you can’t keep me from the ocean and the places we love, and that we’ve always looked to as a family as our happy places.”
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at email@example.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that five fatalities had occurred on Highway 199 so far this year. Later, ODOT contacted the Mail Tribune to alert us that due to an error in the initial police report, one of those fatal crashes had occurred a mile up Deer Creek Road, not on Highway 199 as previously reported. The accident involved Machelle Moore, a 39-year-old from Cottonwood, California, who died as a passenger when the Toyota Scion Tess Burke was driving left the road, hitting a stump and a dirt embankment the night of May 26. Burke survived.