What comes to mind when you think of traffic laws? There are right-of-way rules that say who yields and who proceeds at traffic intersections and crosswalks. And speed limits. These are well known by most drivers. There’s also the law of averages governing the risk of auto injury. These risks are generally invisible to drivers.
Think about the drive between Fresno and Sacramento. The trip usually takes 2.5 to 3.5 hours, depending on traffic conditions. You can go online and compare travel times for Interstate 5 and State Route 99. Most likely you’ll follow I-5 if it can shave 10 minutes off the journey. But what if you knew that drivers on I-5 experience higher rates of collisions causing injury or death? Is 10 minutes worth the risk?
To increase public awareness about California’s scariest roads, those that see the highest rates of injury collisions and fatal collisions, we analyzed California traffic safety records from 2016, the latest full year on record. Statewide, auto collisions caused 1,540 deaths and 278,123 injuries overall. This includes all incidents where a safety patrol officer responded to the scene of an auto collision on federal highways, state freeways, local roads, and private streets.
Below, you’ll find brief descriptions of the roadways that topped our list of California’s scariest roads, plus summaries of recent road modifications that may affect traffic safety, and the numbers of injuries and fatalities in 2016.
For access to the raw data, create a free account and log in to the California Highway Patrol’s Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System.
Scariest federal highways
1. Interstate 5
The California section of Interstate 5 runs 797 miles between the San Ysidro international border crossing and the Oregon border in the Cascades. Prominent sections of this route are known as the Golden State Freeway, the John J. Montgomery Freeway, the Santa Ana Freeway, and the San Diego Freeway. I-5 from California to Washington state is notably the only continuous Interstate highway that connects the borders with Mexico and Canada.
Portions of I-5 in Orange County were rebuilt and widened to contain as many as 22 lanes in the mid-2000s. A federal project to modernize and expand the San Ysidro border crossing at the south end of I-5 will add vehicle inspection booths and realign part of I-5 to connect with the port of entry into Mexico. This project is due for completion in Summer 2019. Another long-term I-5 project will add express vehicle lanes between San Diego and Oceanside. For more information about upgrades to the Southern California section of I-5, visit My5LA.
In 2016, collisions along the California section of I-5 included 78 fatalities and over 8,100 injuries.
2. Interstate 10
The California section of Interstate 10 runs 243 miles between Santa Monica and Riverside County en route to Arizona. Prominent sections of I-10 are known as the San Bernardino Freeway and the Santa Monica Freeway. I-10 is one of three coast-to-coast interstates, along with I-80 and I-90.
In 2017, the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority approved plans to add 33-mile express lanes at an estimated cost of $1.8 billion. Project completion is scheduled for 2024.
In 2016, collisions along the California section of I-10 included 41 fatalities and over 4,700 injuries. Among the scariest federal highways in California, I-10 has the second-highest rate of fatalities and injuries per freeway mile.
3. Interstate 15
The California section of Interstate 15 runs 287 miles between San Diego and the Inland Empire on the way to Las Vegas.
Local, state, and federal authorities are planning to add about 15-mile-long express lanes at an estimated cost of $471 million. Project completion is scheduled for 2020. According to Interstate Guides, transportation planners ultimately aim to extend I-15 about 7.5 miles to link up with I-5 in San Diego.
In 2016, collisions along the California section of I-15 included 28 fatalities and over 3,400 injuries.
4. Interstate 80
The California section of Interstate 80 runs 199 miles between San Francisco and the Nevada border near Lake Tahoe. I-80 from California to New Jersey is the second-longest interstate highway after I-90.
In 2016, local and state authorities completed a safety and mobility project called the I-80 SMART Corridor between the Carquinez Bridge and the Bay Bridge in the eastern San Francisco Bay Area. At a cost of $79 million, the project integrated real-time traffic information and electronic signs to improve traffic management. In 2013, the California Department of Transportation completed a major seismic retrofit on the eastern span of the Bay Bridge, alleviating congestion from the decade-long construction project. Between 2011 and 2017, the State of California has also added bus and carpool lanes and upgraded a 10-mile segment of I-80 in the Sacramento area.
In 2016, collisions along the California section of I-5 included 24 fatalities and over 3,400 injuries.
5. Interstate 405
The California section of Interstate 405 runs 72 miles between Irvine and San Fernando in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Oregon and Washington state also have bypass roads called Interstate 405. Along with part of I-5 in California, I-405 is known as a segment of the San Diego Freeway.
In 2016, Caltrans completed a $1.6 billion initiative to widen part of the highway known as Sepulveda Pass. The New York Times noted that the project helped reduce peak afternoon traffic time from 7 hours to a still-dreadful 5 hours. It also increased overall traffic capacity.
In 2016, collisions along I-405 in California included 22 fatalities and over 3,700 injuries. Among the scariest federal highways in California, I-405 has the highest rate of fatalities and injuries per freeway mile.
Scariest California state highways
1. US 101
The California section of US 101 runs 808 miles between Los Angeles and the Oregon border at Grants Pass. Operating since the 1920s, US 101 roughly follows El Camino Real, the historic road connecting a series of Spanish missionary outposts dating back to the 18th century. Segments of US 101 are known as the Bayshore Freeway, the Central Freeway, the Hollywood Freeway, the Santa Ana Freeway (a name shared with part of Interstate 5), and the Ventura Freeway.
State and local authorities in Santa Barbara County are planning to widen an 11-mile stretch of US 101, adding high occupancy vehicle lanes at an estimated cost of $350 million. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2019. However, in January 2018, mudslides that killed at least 20 people forced the closure of an 11-mile stretch of the 101 in Santa Barbara County. Other ongoing projects include replacement of the Sixth Street Viaduct in downtown Los Angeles, expected to wrap up in 2020.
In 2016, collisions along US 101 in California included 40 fatalities and over 7,800 injuries.
2. State Route 99
California State Route 99 runs 425 miles through the Central Valley between the Bakersfield area and a northern terminus near Red Bluff. Once the major north-south thoroughfare before construction of I-5, the route is also known as the Golden State Highway.
In recent years, state authorities have undertaken numerous projects to widen four-lane sections of SR 99 to six lanes. By 2015, about 50 miles had been widened to six lanes. In 2016, Caltrans widened another four miles in the Stockton area. In Fresno, construction crews are also relocating SR 99 west to make room for the California High Speed Rail corridor. In 2016, ValuePenguin, a personal finance website, named SR 99 as the most dangerous road in the country.
In 2016, collisions along California SR 99 included 29 fatalities and over 3,300 injuries.
3. State Route 1
California State Route 1 runs 656 miles along the Pacific Coast between Dana Point, a small Orange County city, and a junction with US 101 in Mendocino County. Sections of the route are known as the Cabrillo Highway, the Coast Highway, the Pacific Coast Highway, and the Shoreline Highway.
SR 1 has long been plagued by land erosion as the coastline absorbs the onrushing tides. In 2017, an estimated 5 million cubic yards of land engulfed a quarter-mile-long portion of the highway at Mud Creek. Repair costs have been pegged at $40 million. The same year, California spent $24 million rebuilding Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge in Big Sur after a slide compromised the old bridge. In 2013, California opened twin tunnels at Devil’s Slide, a treacherous section of SR 1 south of Pacific known for highly active geology. This project cost approximately $439 million.
In 2016, collisions along California SR 1 included 17 fatalities and over 2,600 injuries.
4. State Route 41
California State Route 41 runs 186 miles between Morro Bay and Yosemite National Park. The highway serves a predominantly rural area while passing through Fresno and close to Naval Air Station Lemoore. SR 41 provides a vital link for transporting agricultural goods in the San Joaquin Valley.
According to a long-term planning report for SR 41 published in 2017, the highway is undergoing substantial growth around Lemoore, Fresno County, and Madera County. No projects were reported for Lemoore or Fresno County due to a lack of funds. A project to increase capacity in southern Madera County was only partially funded at the time the report was published and was not expected to be finished until 2022. Meanwhile, a 2015 article in the Hanford Sentinel cataloged some of the factors affecting safety on SR 41, such as two-way stops and poor lighting.
In 2016, collisions along California SR 41 included 13 fatalities and over 600 injuries.
5. State Route 210
California State Route 210 runs 40 miles, forming the eastern half of the Foothill Freeway that continues west towards Los Angeles as Interstate 210. The highway links Interstate 10 in Redlands and State Route 57 in Glendora, serving commuters living in the foothills of San Bernardino County.
A long-term planning report published in 2016 notes plans to add mixed-flow and high occupancy vehicle lanes and build or reconfigure several of the junctures between I-215 and I-10. In addition, planners have designs to introduce rapid public transit and improve conditions for bicyclists and pedestrians along the route.
In 2016, collisions along California SR 210 included 13 fatalities and over 800 injuries. Among the scariest state highways in California, SR 210 has the highest rate of fatalities and injuries per freeway mile.
Some of the scariest local roads in California
1. Harbor Boulevard (Orange County)
Harbor Blvd. runs 23 miles from the San Gabriel Valley foothills south almost all the way to Newport Beach. As noted in a recent article in the OC Register, it is one of Orange County’s busiest thoroughfares.
And to alleviate traffic congestion, transportation planners are considering options that may be considered extreme in a region where car culture reins supreme. The Orange County Transportation Authority is considering a streetcar project that would take five years to build and cost upwards of $600 million.
In 2016, collisions along Harbor Blvd. included 5 fatalities and an estimated 600 injuries.
2. Madison Avenue (Sacramento County)
Madison Ave. runs 10 miles east-west between Sacramento’s McClellan Airport and the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area. In 2007, Sacramento County completed a study of options for widening a two-mile stretch of Madison Ave. from four lanes to six lanes. The county has allocated almost $10 million to design and build the project by 2020.
In 2016, collisions along Madison Ave. included 5 fatalities and roughly 300 injuries. As Sacramento personal injury lawyers, GJEL has a personal experience with this road.
3. Sunset Boulevard (Los Angeles County)
Sunset Blvd. runs 22 miles between downtown Los Angeles and the Pacific Coast. Originating as an 18th Century cattle trail, the windy street with dips and swells became a 20th Century hotspot for thrill-seekers with questionable judgment. In response to persistent traffic congestion, local transportation planners have tried restriping traffic lanes and syncing traffic lights to increase traffic flow.
One city councilman has advocated for a reversible traffic lane on Sunset Blvd. to increase capacity in each direction during commute hours without having to widen the road. In addition, a business-backed association is organizing rideshare and shuttle services while a neighborhood residents’ association is using litigation to block development projects that could lure additional cars onto the road.
In 2016, collisions along Sunset Blvd. included 4 fatalities and about 600 injuries.
4. Camden Avenue (Santa Clara County)
Camden Ave. runs 10 miles through south San Jose, bounded to the west by the San Tomas Expressway and the Almaden Valley to the east. It crosses two major thoroughfares, SR 85 and the Almaden Expressway along its route. As part of Vision Zero San Jose, an initiative to reduce traffic deaths and improve street safety, local transportation planners recommended a road diet for Camden Ave., reconfiguring the street to calm traffic in the area.
In 2016, collisions along Camden Ave. included 5 fatalities and over 40 injuries.
4. Sepulveda Boulevard (Los Angeles County)
Sepulveda Blvd. runs 43 miles between Long Beach and the San Fernando Valley, passing underneath two runways at Los Angeles International Airport along the way. It is the longest street in Los Angeles. In 2010, city planners completed an $11 million project that widened Sepulveda from four lanes to six lanes and added right-turn lanes at heavily trafficked intersections along a two-mile segment of road in Westchester. The city has also considered reversible lanes on Sepulveda, but it hasn’t deployed them.
In 2016, collisions along Sepulveda Blvd. included 1 fatality and an estimated 800 injuries.