A report in the Desert Sun newspaper identifies Highway 62 between Palm Springs, CA and Parker, AZ as a “death trap”, saying that the road is 3 times deadlier than average California highways. The newspaper also claims that the portion of the road that lies between Twentynine Palms and Parker (the stretch closest to the Arizona border) is deadlier still, at 12 times the average.
The Parker area is a magnet for Southern California traffic year round, especially on summer weekends. There are various routes such traffic can take – I-10 to US 95 via Blythe, or I-10 to Mohave Road via Ehrenberg – but the most popular choice has always been I-10 to CA 62 via Desert Center. Is this choice a bad one? If the Desert Sun report is to be believed, the 62 is to be avoided.
Digging into the data
The report includes 16 vehicle fatalities for the stretch of Highway 62 between the Desert Center turnoff and Parker, AZ from 2002 until 2012. 9 out of those 16 were head-on collisions (or other multi-vehicle crashes). The other 7 were single vehicle accidents, with some going off the road and hitting the embankment (soft shoulder) and some rolling over.
11 of the 16 fatalities happened between Memorial Day and Labor Day, which is peak season for river recreation and much of the draw to the Parker area. 5 of the crashes happened on a Thursday, 3 on Mondays, 3 on Wednesdays, 2 on Fridays, 2 on Saturdays and 1 on a Sunday. None happened on a Tuesday.
The majority of the incidents happened in the daytime (between 10am and 5pm). Only 3 happened in the early morning or evening when the sun is lowest in the sky, which suggests the ‘blinding effect’ cited in the report may be statistically insignificant, at least with respect to the eastern stretch of Highway 62.
Speed did not seem to be a particularly prevalent factor. Out of the 16 crashes, we have speed data for 11 of them, and out of those, 8 of them recorded speeds that fell within or not far above the 65 mph speed limit. One was far below the limit, and only 2 were truly excessive.
Susprisingly, alcohol and drugs did not play a role in most of the crashes either. Only 5 of the 16 incidents involved alcohol at all, and 3 of those 5 had blood alcohol content that was below the legal limit (0.06, 0.07 and 0.02). Only 2 of the 16 cases involved drugs; one meth and the other ‘an unknown cannabinoid’.
Then why is the 62 so deadly?
If alcohol and drugs were not a particularly prevalent cause of the fatal crashes over the past 12 years, and speed wasn’t a factor for most of them, and drivers weren’t being blinded by the sun, then why is the highway considered so deadly?
The answer might be summed up in two words: vehicle drift. When a vehicle drifts across the center line and the road does not have a barrier or median of any sort separating traffic going in opposite directions, a head-on collision is possible. That explains the 9 out of 16 cases cited above. Similarly, when a vehicle drifts off roadway to the right and hits the embankment, it can roll over or flip. That explains the other 7 cases cited above.
But why are vehicles drifting, if not from alcohol, being blinded or speeding? It is difficult to measure things like the drowsiness and distractedness of drivers. But the Desert Sun report hints at the engineering of the road, putting Caltrans on the defensive. According to experts and CHP officers, there may be little margin for error on the 62. One expert told the newspaper, “This is a road where someone needs to understand what is going on. You’ve made a case that is worthy of investigation by Caltrans.”
There is some investment in road safety happening. Regarding one section of the 62, the report says: “To combat crashes on this stretch of highway, Caltrans plans to widen shoulders and install rumble strips on three half-mile sections of the highway. The project, which is estimated to cost about $3.1 million, is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2018.”
One reason people use the route between Parker and Desert Center (CA 62 and CA 177) is that they consider it faster. Anecdotes suggest that people consider it 30 to 45 minutes faster than the route through the CRIT valley to Ehrenberg.
But since the difference in distance between the routes is only 11 miles, navigation software estimates the time saved at much less than half an hour. The average estimate (across Google, Apple, Bing, Yahoo and Mapquest) was 16 minutes’ difference between the two routes. (Apple software in particular recommended going through the valley and across Agnes-Wilson Bridge to US 95 and meeting I-10 in Blythe.)
If Highway 62 is a “death trap” as the Desert Sun says, is Mohave Road any better? Parker Live does not have comparable statistics. But if the speculation is right, factors causing fatalities by vehicle drift on the 62 are not present on Mohave Road, which is flat, straight and slightly slower.
So it may be worth an extra 16 minutes of your time.