Mary Chambers was working at Atascadero State Hospital in 1993 when a patient stabbed the front of her neck with a sharpened pencil. The stabbing caused her physical and emotional trauma, but it also pushed her into a new and rewarding calling.
She didn’t return to the state hospital. Instead, in 1995 she went looking for something else to occupy her mind and her considerable energies. By chance she was asked to chair the Fix 46 Committee. At age 61, she accepted and plunged in.
At that time, Highway 46 east of Paso Robles was often called Blood Alley. It was mainly a two-lane road. It was also a road of many crashes and smashes, including some that killed multiple victims.
On Sept. 5, 1986, a car carrying six farm workers was shredded under a trailer truck on the Cholame Creek Bridge. Five men were killed and the sixth critically injured. Shandon firefighters at the scene told me 17 people had been killed so far that year on Highway 46 near Shandon.
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On Nov. 25, 1995, five people died on Highway 46 between Shandon and Cholame. A motorhome crossed into the oncoming lane and smashed into a car, head-on. Both vehicles caught fire. The driver of the motorhome, Richard Jennings of Visalia, and three in the car were killed. The driver of a second car, Cal Poly graduate student Jeffrey Kinney, also died.
The three in the first car were Jeff Fairbanks, editor of what was then the Telegram-Tribune; his wife, Ann, a reporter; and their 12-year-old daughter, Siena. Their 8-year-old daughter, Galen, was pulled to safety by a 17-year-old boy whose mother stopped to help.
It was around that time that a public meeting was held at Paso Robles City Hall about the high accident rate on Highway 46. Mary Chambers’ husband, Bob, wanted to attend. County Supervisor Harry Ovitt was also at the meeting. She’d met him previously when she lived in Shandon.
He told her the Fix 46 Committee needed a chairman. The committee is a link between the general public and any official or agency who might possibly help make Highway 46 safer. Sometimes the committee advises the officials and agencies and sometimes pushes them. It also rallies the public.
In Mrs. Chambers’ 16 years as Fix 46 chairwoman, she’s learned the ways of politics and bureaucracies. She’s worked long hours, made many trips, met state senators and state assemblymen, and met with members of Congress. Did she do any good? All I know is it’s been years since I last heard Highway 46 called Blood Alley.
Fixing 46 is an example of how government should work. I’ll write about that in next week’s column.