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From James Dean to today, Hwy. 46 has a long history of tragic car crashes

Highway 46 has long had a bloody reputation.

The most famous death on the highway was James Dean in 1955, but then it could be argued that in the mid-20th Century, the rural road didn’t have the traffic to require an upgrade.

Auto manufacturers come out with new improved models every year, while highway construction advances lag in increments measured by decades or longer. Portions of the original Dean highway can be seen next to the current road. The Antelope Grade still has no barrier between east and westbound traffic.

Today, roadways build for our grandparents’ sedan standards now carry vehicles that are often wider, larger and more powerful.

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Fix 46 logo included a skull and crossbones, from story published Nov. 26, 1987

By the 1980s, deadly accidents on the highway had become commonplace, and residents began to organize.

It took years of lobbying and many stories in The Tribune and Bakersfield Californian, but finally the state decided to make the east-west link between Paso Robles and the Valley a priority.

But now, as the last stretch of Highway 46 road improvements were expected to be funded, Gov. Gavin Newsom has committed a highway (funding) robbery via executive order.

The order would take voter-approved money from a 12-cents-per-gallon gas tax and route it not to rural highway improvements, but to rail projects instead.

Expanding rail options is a noble goal, but perhaps the commuters in the area that will benefit ought to be the first to fund the project rather than stealing from an artery that sees motorist fatalities at a rate three times the state average, according to Caltrans data.

The construction started from the cities and moved outward from Bakersfield and Paso Robles, leaving the last link over the horizon —and farthest from the first responders who inevitably have to roll to collisions.

If you wish to send a comment to the governor, this Tribune editorial has a link to his email address.

Gregg Schroeder wrote this Aug. 6, 1987, story when Gov. Newsom was in college. (The last sentence with an outdated phone number is omitted.)

It is possible that former Telegram-Tribune editor Jeff Fairbanks copy-edited this story before it published. Jeff, Ann and daughter Siena were killed along with Richard Jennings and Jeffrey Kinney in a fiery head on collision less than a decade later, east of the Shandon rest stop in November 1995.

Less than three years later, five people were killed in almost the same place. Since then, K-rail has been installed to keep drivers from crossing over the double yellow line, but in other places head-on collisions continue.

We can’t prevent 100% of collisions, but can we at least try to prevent head-on crashes?

My heart falls every time the scanner alert sounds for a collision.

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Kathy Tomkins told the Tribune in August 1987 that her daughter Shannon, 8, would be driving before Caltrans improved Highway 46. Gregg Schroeder

Family signs on for battle to ‘Fix 46’

PASO ROBLES — Kathy Tomkins and daughter Shannon hope the sign posted near their home by the “Fix 46” committee will save lives.

The sign, the first of three to be given to the organization by an anonymous donor, graphically explains why motorists should be cautious when traveling the two-lane Highway 46 East.

It’s located in front of the Estrella River Winery, opposite the Tomkinses’ property.

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Caltrans advertised the first steps to widen Highway 46 in October 1986. The map shows New York as the eastern terminus of the road but the focus of the widening projects was a more modest Bakersfield-to-Paso Robles span. file

That’s where two people were killed June 25 in a fiery four-vehicle collision.

“We heard the explosion happen,” Tomkins said. She and other family members helped fight a grass fire started by the crash so that rescue workers could reach victims. Since January 1986, 20 people have died in auto accidents on Highways 41 and 46 between Paso Robles and Kern County.

Tomkins and other “Fix 46” organizers don’t want to wait the nine years Caltrans officials have said it will take before they can widen the highway.

With that schedule, Tomkins said, her 8-year-old daughter Shannon will be driving the highway before it’s improved.

The group wants motorists to drive the highway with their headlights on during the day, and to sign petitions asking the state to make temporary safety improvements until the road can be widened. The petitions are at area shopping centers and businesses.

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