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‘We are at a loss’: CHP is unsure why this span of Northern California highway is so deadly

A two-car, head-on collision east of Nevada City on Tuesday resulted in one fatality, making it the fourth deadly accident on the east-west state highway this year, according to a news release by the Grass Valley California Highway Patrol office.

The incident involved a 50-year-old Grass Valley man driving a 1998 Honda Civic, traveling eastbound on Highway 20 near Chalk Bluff Road, when he took his eyes off the road to reach for cigarettes in his car and drifted into oncoming traffic, according to an accident report included in the CHP news release.

The Honda Civic collided into the front of a 1994 GMC Sierra carrying a driver and passenger, both 71-year-old Grass Valley residents, the news release said.

The GMC overturned at least one time, causing fatal injuries to the female passenger.

The male passenger in the GMC sustained major injuries and was transported to Sutter Roseville, where he remained as of Friday morning.

Neither dangerous speeds nor intoxication were a factor in the Tuesday accident, according to the CHP.

The area where the recent spate of accidents has occurred is a rural stretch of highway, a designated a scenic route, CHP Officer Mike Steele said.

“It’s not windy — it’s actually a pretty pleasant drive,” Steele said. “We are at a loss as to why this is happening out here.”

Highway 20 begins at Highway 1 in Fort Bragg and crosses the state about 50 miles north of Sacramento. Highway 20 traverses Clear Lake, Colusa, Yuba City and Nevada City. The eastern end merges with I-80 near Emigrant Gap.

There are no towns between Nevada City and I-80, a span of 28 miles.

“No services, no nothing,” Steele said.

Highway 20, east of Nevada City, has seen four fatal collisions this year, an alarming rate, according to Grass Valley CHP, which reported 12 total fatalities across their zone of patrol last year.

Grass Valley office deploys two to three officers per daytime shift to patrol all of Nevada County and I-20 north to I-80. Of the previous fatalities, two were caused by drunk driving, and the cause of the third was unknown.

“The biggest things we could do are to be out there more, have more saturation,” Steele said, but the “hard part is staffing.” At any given moment there are only two or three officers patrolling the 1,100-square-mile territory.

“People get complacent because they don’t see us much,” Steele said, remarking that response times to accidents can last over an hour.

Steele also addressed a common frustration from drivers and residents.

“You can’t stop for a speeder when you are responding to an injury accident,” Steele said.

Steele said CHP Grass Valley is attempting to analyze the various collisions for a common thread to make the road safer.

“I don’t want this to be a trend if there is something to pinpoint ... Maybe this is just a series of unfortunate events.”

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