Highway Patrol officer Gwen Goodwin steers her black-and-white Ford squad car north on Ashwood Street past Lakeside's El Capitan High School until she comes to a four-way stop. Straight ahead, the road starts to climb. "This is where Wildcat Canyon Road starts," she says, accelerating toward the hill rising up in front of her, "right here at Willow Road."
Wildcat Canyon Road runs 15 miles north and south between Willow Road and San Vicente in San Diego Country Estates, southwest of Ramona. Between the termini lie the Barona Indian reservation with its casino, cultural center, dirt racetrack, new golf course, and 300-room hotel under construction. These attractions account for the bulk of the 20,000 trips daily — Goodwin's estimate — along the road. The rest are commuters from San Diego Country Estates who use the road as an alternative to State Route 67 to the west, and the 150 to 200 families that live in homes along the southern five miles of the road where it snakes through the canyon it's named after. As Goodwin, decked in reflective sunglasses, navigates this section of road, her passenger asks what makes Wildcat Canyon Road so dangerous. "The road is not dangerous," she snaps. "It's the people who drive it who are dangerous. They think they can drive Wildcat Canyon at any speed, and they can't. They lose control, cross the double yellow, and..."
Statistics kept by the county indicate that Wildcat Canyon is not as dangerous as similar roads in California. Bob Brown, from San Diego County's transportation division, points to a study done in June of 2000 tracking the collision rate on the most heavily traveled stretch of Wildcat Canyon Road. "The segment of Wildcat Canyon from Willow Road to the south boundary of the reservation," Brown explains. "That's a 4.3-mile segment. Someone reviewed the number of collisions from June 30, 1998, through June 30, 2000, and calculated a collision rate of 1.41 collisions per million vehicle miles. The comparable statewide rate for that type of road is 1.76 collisions per million vehicle miles."
Goodwin acknowledges that Wildcat Canyon has developed a reputation for being a dangerous drive and offers this explanation. "It's a two-lane roadway, it's very windy, it's up and down. Maybe the drivers have decided to go out and gamble at Barona Casino, and they drive the run too fast because they're unfamiliar with it. And there are people that drive it every day and they still drive too fast."
In 2000, 92 accidents took place on Wildcat Canyon. Two resulted in fatalities, 47 in injury, 43 with only property damage. Thirty of the accidents were speed-related, 17 involved driving under the influence of alcohol, 11 were the result of crossing the double yellow line, 6 were caused by a failure to maintain control of the vehicle.
But statistics can be misleading. In the past 12 months, four people have died on Wildcat Canyon. Over the past 18 months, the number is five. And Goodwin explains that a lot of the different official causes listed really boil down to one. "[The statistics] might say that they were on the wrong side of the road or couldn't control the vehicle," the 11-year veteran says, "but a lot of times, the reason they were on the wrong side of the road or couldn't control the vehicle is because they were going too fast and couldn't handle a curve."
When a driver loses control going around a left turn, he often ends up in the gravel of the right-hand shoulder. That's what happened to 77-year-old Charles Geiser of Fremont, California, on November 6, 2000. He was traveling south about 3:30 in the afternoon when he found himself off the road on the right shoulder. Overcorrecting, he swerved his '86 Toyota Camry back across the northbound lane and careened down an embankment on the other side. He died at the scene. His wife, Evelyn, suffered only cuts and bruises.
In May 2001, Virginia Anne Cleveland, 54, of Ramona died in a similar accident. She was heading north through the reservation at about 7:50 p.m. when she lost control of her car, veered across the southbound lane and off the road. But instead of going down an embankment, she hit a small rise, which flipped her car over. She was thrown from the rolling car and killed.
Around a right turn, centrifugal force pulls a speeding car across the double-yellow line into the opposing lanes. The result of crossing a double yellow, on a heavily traveled and two-lane rural road, is often a head-on collision. On March 11 of this year, at 5:45 a.m., Emile Abed Zaytoona, a 28-year-old employee at the Barona Casino (which sits on Wildcat Canyon about five miles north of Willow Road), was driving south on Wildcat Canyon at 70 miles per hour when he crossed the center line. His '97 Toyota Corolla collided with a '91 Camry occupied by an elderly couple from Lemon Grove. Zaytoona was killed in the wreck, the Lemon Grovers were both injured.
It's 8:00 in the morning, and Goodwin drives north at the posted speed limit of 50 miles per hour. On the other side of the road, an unbroken line of southbound cars crawls by. "We have a lot of people who commute this road," Goodwin explains, "a lot of people come down from the Estates on this road. Wildcat Canyon is just west of the Estates, and 67 is another good seven miles west through stop signs and stop lights."
Five miles — and three roadside-death memorials — north of Willow Road, the road crowns a summit and descends into a valley. A cattle guard marks the entrance to Barona Indian Reservation. "Look how many of the cars going this direction are going into the casino," Goodwin says, pointing ahead to where nine cars ahead of us turn left into the casino parking lot, and only one continues on toward Ramona.
A curve or two beyond the casino, the Barona Cultural Center comes up on the west side of the road. Nobody turns in to its lot. A couple of hundred yards further and the road bends sharply to the right. Goodwin brakes and negotiates the turn, then points across the road to a group of compact car-sized boulders at the base of a globular eucalyptus tree. "This is a bad spot right here," she says. "We always have people that hit that group of rocks right there. They come around that curve too hot, and they go off the road and nail those rocks. They're like a stinking magnet."
A quarter mile past the rocks, the road turns sharply left and dips dramatically — it's a depression to allow a seasonal stream, dry today, to flow over the road. "And then we have people who crash right here in this dip area," Goodwin says. "You have to slow down pretty quickly to get through the dip, and people go hauling butt through here and crash over there in that ditch just north of the dip."
She points to the right at a narrow gravel turnout beyond which a ditch opens up to the right of the road. Heavy black skid marks on the road lead straight into this area. "We get a lot of calls for accidents right here. When [the dispatchers] say, 'Just north of the dip,' everybody who patrols this area knows what they're talking about."
Goodwin says she's seen some "gnarly" wrecks along Wildcat Canyon but demurs when asked to describe the worst, saying only, "The crashes up here can be grinders. A good majority of them are grinders."
"Twisted metal, and ambulances everywhere, fire trucks, police vehicles, metal-cutting tools, having to cut people out because the car is so smashed around them that we can't remove them from the vehicle, blood everywhere. Sometimes you have someone who has died because of the crash, and you have to tow the vehicle to another location in order to extricate the body. Those are pretty bad. It's just...you know...it can be unnerving. As emergency personnel, you do your job, and you hope you don't take it home with you. If you do, you hope you have somebody at home who will understand and be able to support you."
To make the road safer, many would like to see the road widened to four lanes -- two in each direction. The Barona Indians have lobbied for widening for years, especially for the section of Wildcat Canyon between the reservation and Willow Road. But as soon as you use the word widen, Goodwin says, "That's when the residents start objecting, and I don't blame them. Look at where they live." She gestures around at the landscape of chaparral hillsides studded with live, black, and Engelmann oak trees and creek beds lined with sycamores. "They moved out here for a reason -- for the remote, rural feel of it, and they don't want that to change. They'd rather change the drivers, and I understand that. But with the amount of traffic that goes up and down Wildcat Canyon, it's not an unrealistic wish for law enforcement and the county to want to do that."
Short of widening the road, Goodwin suggests building more turnout areas as a way to make Wildcat Canyon safer. Turnouts, she says, would allow slower drivers "to pull over so people could get past them. You get the older people going to play bingo who don't even drive the speed limit. They have a parade behind them, and people are getting to be frustrated because they're doing 35 on a road that says 50. So now you're going to have people who are getting impatient and trying to pass on a curve or where the double yellow lines say it's not safe to pass. If we had more turnouts, maybe that would help a little bit."
A greater enforcement presence is another solution Goodwin lists, though she says enforcement is difficult on Wildcat Canyon because "it's not safe for us to make stops in this road because there is no place to stop. We do the best we can. We try to pull them into a driveway or just follow them all the way down to the bottom of the hill until we can find someplace down off Willow to stop them, or things like that."
More turnout areas would solve that problem, too. Regarding signage, Goodwin says, "You can't oversign the road. If you start putting too many signs up, they get lost because people will tune them out. If there's a specific area where people don't seem to be seeing the sign, you might want to oversize it. But it's been proven statistically, if you oversign a roadway, people will tune out all of them.
"We need to change driver behavior," Goodwin continues, "because as soon as we change the driver behavior, the road itself is not dangerous. It's the people that drive the road that make it dangerous," she says, repeating her earlier adage.
But Goodwin admits, to make a road like Wildcat Canyon absolutely safe, you can't just change driver behavior, you have to change every driver's behavior. "You can drive carefully," she says, "but you can't control what other people do. You can just be cruising along, minding your own business, driving the road properly, being safe, and some idiot who is trying to do 70 miles per hour through a curve comes across the double yellow and smacks you."
That is what happened to Lisa Whitcomb. On March 17, 2000, the 42-year-old El Cajon resident and divorced mother of four boys was driving along Wildcat Canyon Road when a Ford pickup traveling the opposite direction crossed the center line and slammed into her head on. Whitcomb died a few days later.