This article originally appeared in the April 10, 2016 issue of The Press Enterprise. View clip online.
When Ted Morgan was a Moreno Valley police officer, he rarely responded to a fender bender on Gilman Springs Road.
“Every time we got a call of a crash out there, we rolled multiple officers because we knew it was going to be bad,” he said. “They were almost always injury accidents.”
Roughly a crash a week occurs on this 12-mile, two-lane, mostly rural road that connects the San Jacinto Valley to the 60 on the edge of Moreno Valley, according to a Press-Enterprise analysis of a decade’s worth of California Highway Patrol data.
Some crashes are inconvenient, such as a gravel truck that rolled April 4 and slowed the evening commute. Others are tragic, such as a head-on collision March 25 that killed both drivers and injured three passengers.
At least 27 other crashes along Gilman Springs Road have killed people since 2006.
Roadside memorials attest to the road’s deadly past, and many local residents relate having seen bad crashes, or at least the reckless behavior that can lead to one. Many say they avoid the road at night or outright and wonder what can be done to make it safer.
“We’re doing what we can,” said Patricia Romo, assistant director of the Riverside County Transportation Department. “It doesn’t ever seem to go fast enough, but as funding becomes available, we’re out there putting it on this road.”
Improving safety along Gilman Springs Road is among the county’s top five transportation priorities, Romo said. In July 2013, the department began a five-phase safety improvement project that aims to include every segment of the road – from the northern section that traverses expansive fields near Moreno Valley to where it gets tight and twisty in Gilman Hot Springs at the southern end.
Phases one and two were finished in 2013. Phases three and five are to happen this summer, and Romo said phase four is at least three years away, dependent upon funding.
Safety has improved in the segments affected by the first two phases, Romo said. Resurfacing, rumble strips and other improvements applied east of Sanderson Avenue in phase one helped reduce the number of annual collisions there by 33 percent, she said; road widening, curve smoothing and the addition of a passing lane south of the 60 during phase two contributed to a 43 percent drop in the yearly collision rate there.
In both cases, the Transportation Department compared figures from three years before to improvements to those from the two years following.
The CHP data show the monthly accident rate for the whole area patrolled by the agency dropped 14 percent when comparing collision data from the 21 months prior to the phase two work to the 21 months afterward.
Moreno Valley, whose police services are provided by the county Sheriff’s Department, has jurisdiction over the road from the 60 to about Alessandro Boulevard. The city did not provide crash data in time for this story.
The extent of the reduction in accidents is lost in the public outcry whenever a crash occurs.
Where Gilman Springs meets Alessandro Boulevard in Moreno Valley is a problem area. CHP data show the agency responded to 107 collisions near there in the decade beginning Jan. 1, 2006. Morgan said people would often roll through the stop sign at Alessandro and misjudge the speed of traffic.
Another problem area – part of phase five plans – is where Gilman Springs Road meets the 79, known as Sanderson Avenue to the south. The CHP responded to 169 collisions in that vicinity in the same time period.
The March 25 double-fatal crash was near that intersection. So was a crash causing serious injuries the day before.
Cesar Padilla, 18, of San Jacinto can’t remember that crash, but he can’t forget the outcome. His left leg, chest, cheeks and jaw are broken.
“It’s a miracle he survived without life-threatening injuries,” said his sister Julia Padilla, 34.
Julia Padilla says she is often blinded by the high beams of an oncoming car, and passing cars sometimes “remain in the opposite lane until they’re pretty much playing chicken with oncoming cars,” she said.
Romo said the Transportation Department works with the CHP to increase patrols where the CHP has jurisdiction.
The issue is not so much that the road is dangerous, said CHP Officer Darren Meyer, but that it’s heavily traveled. Meyer said many crashes occur during weekday commuting hours.
Soboba Casino also contributes to the traffic, he said, because it can be accessed no other way.
Morgan’s 18-year career was cut short by a collision on Gilman Springs Road. While responding to a crash in 2014, his motorcycle collided with a U-turning vehicle. The resulting injuries forced him to retire.
Morgan, of Hemet, still uses Gilman Springs Road but obeys the 55 mph speed limit. “I’ve seen so much, I know better,” he said.