Angry Drivers Target California Road Crews
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Okay, road rage has gone even a little farther on a winding stretch of highway outside Los Angeles. Construction crews that have been trying to widen a highway have been threatened, nearly run over, and shot at by angry motorists. In fact, it's gotten so dangerous the state decided to shut down the highway completely until the job is finished.
NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.
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MANDALIT DEL BARCO: To get to State Highway 138, you have to drive more than 90 miles north from Los Angeles and east towards the Inland Empire. Once you pass a road mark Devil's Punchbowl, keep going through the dry rugged mountain terrain of Joshua trees and yuccas.
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DEL BARCO: Here along the shoulder of Highway 138 is a homemade shrine in loving memory of Dopey(ph), Anthony Gonzales, who was killed here in 2004.
In the last five years leading up to the start of construction last summer, there were nearly 3,000 traffic collisions and 68 deaths, according to the California Highway Patrol. The highway had become so dangerous, it was dubbed Blood Alley.
Mr. MICHAEL PHILLIPS(ph) (Resident, California): It's only a two-lane road so a lot of people get impatient trying to pass through here and it's just not the place to try.
DEL BARCO: Michael Phillips lives in the area known for summer camps and winter ski slopes.
Mr. PHILLIPS: You can't see over the hills or there might be a curve coming and - the oncoming traffic, you don't see them in time to react.
DEL BARCO: Phillips says that's why the construction crew he's on is widening one particularly dangerous stretch of the highway. But that's caused problems.
Ms. TERRI KASINGA (Spokesperson, Caltrans): We have some threats against the workers and some items thrown at them.
DEL BARCO: That included a flying burrito, which one irate driver threw at a worker, says Terri Kasinga. She's a spokesperson for Caltrans, the state's transportation department.
Ms. KASINGA: It seemed to escalate a little bit when a guy threatened to shoot one of the workers from one of the water towers down the road here with a high-powered rifle.
DEL BARCO: In separate incidents, two men flagging traffic away from the closure were run down by exasperated motorists - one of them reportedly on purpose.
Ms. MICHELLE HOLWITTZ (Construction Worker): It is road rage - big time.
DEL BARCO: Construction worker Michelle Holtwittz has also been the brunt of impatient drivers calling her names and worse.
Ms. HOLWITTZ: All of a sudden I felt a sting in my leg. You know, somebody shot me with a BB gun. Thank God it wasn't a bullet, yeah.
DEL BARCO: We're you surprised?
Ms. HOLWITTZ: Yeah, I just, you know, ow, and then I got home and I looked, and there was a nice little welt there.
DEL BARCO: How did he know it was a BB gun?
Ms. HOLWITTZ: I seen the BB on the ground and picked it up.
DEL BARCO: Well, what's going on around here?
Ms. HOLWITTZ: I have no idea. People are cruel - real cruel.
DEL BARCO: Things got so bad, workers stopped escorting drivers through the construction site. Now motorists are forced to detour around quaint villages such as Rightwood, a ski destination in the winter and a popular mountain getaway the rest of the year.
Ms. NANCY YOUNGBLOOD(ph) (Owner; Something Old, Something New): This town has now turned into pretty much a ghost town.
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DEL BARCO: Nancy Youngblood is the owner of Something Old, Something New, which sells clocks and other gift items. Youngblood says the highway closure has cut her business by half. She says most of the stores in Rightwood have had to reduce their hours or close down completely.
Ms. YOUNGBLOOD: We've got a couple of people in town that are hanging on by a thread. They may not make it. It's just been kind of scary for all of us. And I'll tell you what, this would not happen in Lake Tahoe. This would not happen up in Big Bear, because they're big people and they've got a lot of big business going on and thousands of people. But we're just a little community here.
DEL BARCO: Youngblood says Rightwood residents are grateful the improved highway will open again by early September. But soon after, construction is set to begin on another nearby highway.
Ms. YOUNGBLOOD: If they do this a third year in a row, I'm just afraid it's going to be death of us.
DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
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