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Cops Come Down Hard on "Canyon Carving"
July 12, 2007 - By Lee Michaelson
With helicopters circling overhead and police motorcycles lined up on parade, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky joined commanders from the California Highway Patrol (CHP) West Valley Area and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Lost Hills Station on Monday, June 25, to publicize Operation Safe Canyons, a crackdown on illegal racing and other hazardous driving practices on canyon roads.
Mulholland Highway and other mountain roadways in and near Topanga are well known for their breathtaking ocean views and scenic canyon vistas; the relatively unpopulated, twisting mountain roads are the stuff of movies and high-end automobile advertisements. Of late, however, a drive along these roadways has become breathtaking in an altogether different sense, as sports car magazines and internet sites around the country encourage "canyon carvers" to put their souped-up sports cars and high-performance motorcycles through their high-speed paces on the area's winding turns.
PHOTOS COURTESY LOS ANGELES COUNTY SHERIFF
From left: Sheriff's Captain Tom Miller, County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, and California Highway Patrol Captain Stephen Webb point out the skidmarks left on a stretch of Mulholland Highway by exhibitionist drivers.
"Canyon carving" has been defined as "driving down a mountain road as fast as one possibly can, simply for the enjoyment of the experience," according to one enthusiast posting on everything2.com. "Take an internal combustion engine, and wrap a precision piece of machinery with either two or four wheels. Add a driver with the proper mixture of gusto, skill, and healthy disregard for the speed limit. Throw them together on a winding mountain road and you have the ingredients for a good time," he continues.
Year to date, said CHP Captain Stephen Webb, the West Valley Area Commander, "we have had two fatalities [on canyon roads in the area], and that's two too many. We've had 60 traffic collisions since the beginning of the year." Webb says although the collision statistics represent a reduction from the same period last year, "the volume of violations continues to be way too high."
Though Officer Leland Tang, Public Affairs and Information officer for the CHP, says Topanga Canyon Boulevard itself is too congested to become much of a draw to speedsters, Tuna Canyon Road has been well-publicized on internet sites and bulletin boards frequented by exhibitionist drivers, as have Mulholland Highway, Saddle Peak, Las Virgenes Road, and other area roadways frequented by Topanga drivers. Some sites invite motorcyclists to congregate for the purpose of high-speed rides through local canyon roads; the Rite-Aid drug store at the foot of Topanga Canyon Boulevard and Ventura Boulevard is a popular rendezvous for such outings.
A Mulholland Highway scenic overlook formed the backdrop for the Operation Safe Canyon press briefing, and its rubber skid-marked pavement bore witness to the dangerous antics CHP and Sheriff's officials say regularly take place thereÑexhibitions of speed, wheelies, burnouts, doughnuts, and a variety of other stunts, according to Captain Webb. Webb also cited the problem of high-performance vehicles speeding into the early morning hours on Stunt Road and neighboring canyon roads, as well as reckless driving and excessive speed on the canyon roads in general.
Of course, the ability to engage in high-speed and stunt driving on challenging roads is precisely what attracts canyon carvers to the area. Many go on-line to regale their cohorts with tales of their carving adventures in the Topanga-Malibu area, some even memorializing their driving prowess with video cameras mounted on their vehicles, then uploading the footage to the web. You Tube features (among many other such offerings) video of a hand-built Mercedes CLK DTM AMG, advertised as the "fastest open-top four-seater in the world," "carving up Mulholland Highway in So Cal." The limited edition race car, which sells for 277,820 Euros (U.S. $378,585) in Germany, is hot on the tail of a motorcycle racing along the same stretch of road throughout most of the ride; meanwhile, a veritable parade of cycles whiz by in the opposite direction.
A posting on the Pelican Parts Bulletin Board Server shares photos and narrative by Jack Olsen who claims to have cut out of work early one sunny Saturday morning, driving 23 miles (in 15 minutes, he proudly announces) to Topanga in order to take his Porsche 911 on a high-speed, "wide-open," 98-mile spin "from Mulholland Highway, to Stunt Road, to Saddle Peak, to Piuma Canyon, to Los Virgenes, back to Mulholland Highway, past the Rock Store, all the way to Decker Canyon, and back to the 101." The ride, he says, was "pretty freakin' excellent"; his major complaintÑthat slower-moving motorcycles would not move over to allow him to pass.
At least one motorcyclist claims to have had exactly the opposite experience, blowing by the stunned driver of a $90,000 Porsche on his BMW on a carving adventure through Tuna Canyon. Russell Bynum relates the trip down Tuna Canyon on the BMW Sport Touring Bulletin Board: "A year ago, Dick and Laney and I did this road and I was amazed at how Dick did the turns. He'd come in really slow and d*mn near rip the asphalt off the road accelerating out of it."
Among the multitude of narrow canyon roads in the Santa Monica Mountains, Tuna Canyon Road is known among carvers as "unique. It's an extremely windy road; you're almost guaranteed to skid at least a couple of times if you're driving this road at a decent speed," writes one blogger on everything2.com. "Owing to its narrowness and difficult sharp turns, Tuna Canyon Road has been described as where Satan and his 29 virgins live. People who have driven this road for 20 years still have trouble on it; they swear that the road grows more curves every time they drive on it. What makes this road worth it, though, are the few straight-aways. These brief stretches of straight road offer a good opportunity to explore the upper reaches of any car's speedometer; any decent car should be able to reach at least eighty on these stretches before the next curve requires a good heavy foot on the brakes," he continues. Add to that another "plus" for speedsters, "[T]here's little need to worry about any sort of traffic, as it's only one way; the only one way canyon road in Southern California."
Sound exciting? Not exciting enough, it seems, for some of the carvers, who, Captain Webb says, travel one-way Tuna in the wrong direction while driving in a reckless manner. Others run the canyon roads under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.
Not to worry, says the blogger in his canyon-carving advice column. "Due to its secluded location, there is no need to worry about speeding tickets or traffic cops. "
That's exactly the kind of attitude that Operation Safe Canyons is intended to change. "We are here to tell exhibitionist drivers, ÔBeware. We are here,'" said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky in formally introducing the 24-hour a day, seven-day a week targeted enforcement program which was initiated in April. With the new program now in full swing, Yaroslavsky said, "the odds are very high that if you engage in this kind of reckless driving, life-threatening driving, you will be nailed. You will not only get a citation, your car will be impounded and depending on the circumstance you may go to jail. This is not a joke. This is something that we take very seriously."
Since the beginning of the year, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has issued more than 800 citations on canyon roads, according to Sheriff's Captain Tom Martin. Martin said that nearly all of those citations can be attributed to the Operation Safe Canyons program, because the Sheriff's Department does not usually perform traffic enforcement in the unincorporated areas.
Webb said the CHP has issued an additional 625 citations year-to-date just for speeding on the canyon roads; they have also made six arrests in the area for driving under the influence.
Two grants have made the aggressive enforcement program possible. The California Office of Traffic Safety awarded the local CHP a sizeable grant through the Nat