Back-Seat Driver

Danger lurks on the flanks of Highway 50 in the mountains

Winter driving tips to navigate Sierra roadways

Caltrans shares important tips for motorists heading to higher elevations this winter. The video also introduced drivers to Caltrans' new method of identifying chain installers who have been permitted and trained by Caltrans. Public Information Of
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Caltrans shares important tips for motorists heading to higher elevations this winter. The video also introduced drivers to Caltrans' new method of identifying chain installers who have been permitted and trained by Caltrans. Public Information Of

There is a growing danger on Highway 50 in the Sierra.

More drivers than ever this winter are parking illegally on the side of the road to play or take photos in the snow.

That’s despite the fact that “No Stopping Anytime” signs frequently line the road from Placerville to Echo Summit. California Highway Patrol officials say some people are even parking on one side of the road and running across to the other, snow toys in hand.

“It’s like people haven’t seen snow before,” CHP spokesman Brent McElmurry in Placerville said.

Sue Gardner, who drives the mountain regularly, said that issue is combining with a second problem on what is really just a narrow, curvy two-lane road: more traffic. The parkers just make it worse.

“Yesterday’s drive was the worst I have seen in a long time,” she said in an email last week. “A 15-minute drive from (the summit) to Strawberry took 45 minutes.”

That was on Christmas week, one of the heaviest Tahoe travel periods, when it was likely that plenty of “snow rookie” tourists traveled Highway 50. But traffic is worse in general, Highway 50 users say. (Last week, in a horrible crash, one vehicle flew off the road and landed upside down in the river below, killing an 11-year-old passenger.)

The CHP’s McElmurry said he and Caltrans officials consulted last week about the illegal parkers. McElmurry said CHP likely will begin issuing more citations for illegal parking. He said many drivers hurry back to their cars and drive off when a CHP officer stops and begins writing a ticket for one car.

Caltrans’ Steve Nelson meanwhile says his agency may send trucks up to add new “No Parking” signs in some spots. The agency also may use a changeable message board to remind drivers not to park in restricted areas.

Transportation officials say traffic has been heavy this winter because the economy is healthier and good snow has been falling.

“The tourism traffic is back,” said Carl Hasty of the Tahoe Transportation District.

Nobody has the money to widen Highway 50 to four lanes, though. Caltrans says traffic levels don’t merit that, other than during holiday periods. And Tahoe basin officials have no interest in the environmental and financial costs – and dubious merits – of widening roads around the lake.

A better, cheaper approach is to nudge people to travel at different hours, Hasty said. That may mean persuading hotels to stagger check-out times, and to get more information to travelers in real time about road conditions and traffic levels, so they can decide when not to travel.

Caltrans employed explosives to blow up a large boulder blocking Highway 50 near Wrights Lake Road in the Sierra Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. The state Department of Transportation reported at 12:30 p.m. that one-way traffic control was in effect nea

Cellphone law

California’s stricter new “no hands” cellphone law is now in effect. You can’t have your cell in hand while driving for any reason. To be used by the driver, the phone must be mounted. You’re allowed to take one swipe or poke at it, say if a call comes in. That’s it.

We’ve gotten several emails from readers asking where they are allowed to mount it. You can attach it to the windshield, but only in two spots, a seven-inch square on the windshield’s lower right corner, or a five-inch square in the corner by the driver.

As for attaching it to the dashboard, the law says it must be “mounted on or affixed to a vehicle’s dashboard or center console in a manner that does not hinder the driver’s view of the road.”

CHP Officer Rafael Cervantez said you can attach it to the top of your dash as long as you do it in the left corner or off far enough to the right so that it doesn’t get in the way of a basic scan of the road.

I called several phone stores around Sacramento last week, and so far, hardly anyone is rushing in to buy cellphone holders. The law is a big one, but it seems to be somewhat under the radar at the moment.

Did you know that when you send or receive a text you take your eyes off the road for 5 seconds? At 55 mph, that's like driving the length of an entire football field, blindfolded.

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